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Is Intermittent Fasting Really All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

Nutrition experts used to debate whether you should eat three big meals or five little ones per day. (Okay, maybe they’re still debating it…) But another foodie fight has recently stolen the spotlight: fasting. As in eating just one meal per day on some days—if that.

Known as intermittent fasting (IF), this eating approach generally involves going anywhere from 14 to 36 hours at a time without eating. Essentially, you’re tricking your body into thinking you’re starving in an effort to slash calories and get your hormones in check.

Sound like fun? This seemingly torturous dieting style has seen serious traction—here’s what you need to know about its potential perks and whether or not it might work for you.

How It Works

Proponents of intermittent fasting believe the eating style shifts your body into ‘starvation mode,’ causing your metabolism to burn body fat for energy because energy from food is unavailable.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted

One of the most popular intermittent fasting protocols is the 5:2 Diet, which involves eating only 500 to 600 calories on two non-consecutive days per week. (You eat normally the other five.) The Eat Stop Eat method requires eating zero food (you can have calorie-free beverages) for a full 24 hours once or twice per week, and eating normally the rest of the time. Meanwhile, on the Warrior Diet, people fast every morning and afternoon and eat one large meal at night. Other methods include restricting food intake to four, six, or eight-hour windows each day.

A quick note for all of our gym-goers and exercise-lovers: On fasting or low-calorie days, workouts are off the table, as sweating it out on empty stomach can result in dizziness or fainting, not to mention poor workout quality.

The Possible Pros

The ultimate goal, for most people: weight loss. Much of the diet is centered on the all-important concept of caloric balance. Consume fewer calories than you burn, and, hypothetically, you’ll lose weight. And, for some people, it’s easier (or more appealing) to cut calories by skipping meals than by trimming calories at every meal, explains Luigi Fontana, M.D., Ph.D., a research professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

According to Fontana, intermittent fasting can reduce weekly caloric intake by 20 to 25 percent. Proponents of IF note that, in theory, even if you eat normally (or end up slightly overeating) on your regular eating days, eating minimally the rest of the time results in a caloric deficit.

Related: This Is The Best Time Of Day To Take A Protein Supplement

Weight loss aside, some experts believe IF may hold further hormonal and health benefits. For instance, in one small University of Copenhagen study, men who followed an intermittent fasting protocol improved their bodies’ glucose-uptake rates, a measure of insulin sensitivity. (A decline in insulin sensitivity is often a precursor of diabetes.)

But There’s A Catch

But even if intermittent fasting may deliver on some health fronts, is it really any better than the more conventional strategy of cutting calories on a daily basis? So far, it doesn’t seem like it. For instance, one 2014 Translational Research review concluded that IF improves visceral (belly) fat and insulin resistance similarly to a daily calorie-cutting strategy. Plus, it also found conventional dieting to support total weight loss over time better than an intermittent fasting approach.

What’s more, IF may actually contribute to muscle-wasting and lowered metabolic rates over time—both of which are counterproductive to long-term weight loss and health. For example, one Pennington Biomedical Research Center study found that when men and women fasted every other day for 22 days, their resting metabolic rates dropped five percent.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health and Well-Being

Is It Worth Trying?

People interested in intermittent fasting should talk to their doctor before taking up the diet, Fontana says. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people recovering from an illness or surgery should not attempt intermittent fasting, since their bodies demand a pretty constant stream of nutrients.

Most health experts’ main concern with IF is that it can promote an unhealthy relationship with food. “Intermittent fasting does not allow a person to rely on his or her own hunger and satiety cues, but gives that ‘job’ to an artificial time clock,” says Kimberly Gomer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. This may be especially problematic for those with a history of disordered eating. “Those with a prior history of compulsive or binge eating, as well as anorexia, can be at risk for these behaviors to be exacerbated by fasting,” explains Gomer.

Make Meal-Timing Work For You

Instead of following a strict eating protocol like intermittent fasting, experts recommend taking a more intuitive, mindful approach to eating.

Gomer suggests eating small meals throughout the day, starting when you feel slightly hungry and putting the fork down when you’re slightly satisfied. (Keep in mind it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for the body to fully register fullness.)

Another tip? To improve your ability to tap into your bod’s signals, work on nixing distracted eating. According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, multitasking during your meals—whether it’s watching TV to walking down the street—can reduce your brain’s ability to gauge food intake and lead to overeating.

Related: 6 Possible Reasons Why You’re Hungry All The Time

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What You Should Change About Your Beauty Routine If You’re Pregnant

Most women know that certain foods become off limits once you’re pregnant. Soft cheeses, lunch meats, and sprouts are all on the “do not eat” list, largely due to the risk of food poisoning.

But many women don’t realize that their beauty routines may be rocked, too. Not only do pregnant women have to look out for a number of ingredients in popular cosmetic products, but they also have to deal with a host of brand-new skin issues.

I spazzed during my first pregnancy when I discovered three months in that salicylic acid face wash is on the “no go” list—and promptly tossed the wash I’d been using since I was a teen in favor of an all-natural scrub.

To keep other expectant moms from having the same freak-outs, we’re breaking down the products you may want to stop using when you’re with child, as well as ones you may want to consider adding in order to deal with the many body changes that hit.

Take A Closer Look At Your Face Wash

“Most women that are pregnant may think that they need to avoid certain foods, and don’t realize that topical products can be absorbed and cause harm to their growing baby,” says Susan G. Murrmann, M.D., F.A.C.O.G., co-founder of the McDonald Murrmann Women’s Clinic.

Common acne-fighting ingredients like tetracycline, salicylic acid, and any retinoid product should be avoided because they may be associated with birth defects, she says. Instead, opt for washes that contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), glycolic acid, and lactic acid, which are considered safe alternatives.

Related: This Reviva Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser is soap and oil-free.  

Rethink Your Mani/Pedi

Manicures and pedicures can feel amazing—especially when you’re pregnant and have crazy-sore feet—but Murrmann urges caution. Many nail polish formulas include a chemical known as TPHP, which is commonly used as a flame retardant, that can be absorbed into the body through the nail, according to a study published in Environmental International

That doesn’t mean you need to avoid nail polish altogether—just look for polishes labeled “all natural” or “TPHP-free.”

“I felt lousy during the first two trimesters of my pregnancy, and getting a monthly pedicure really helped me feel pampered,” says Amy L. “The salon near me didn’t have nail polishes I felt good about, so I just brought my own.”

Related: Mineral Fusion’s nail polishes are 100 percent vegan.

Combat Skin Changes

Skin discoloration, or melasma, a common condition in which people get dark patches on their skin, can occur during pregnancy and is triggered both by hormonal changes and sun exposure. That’s why Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., F.A.A.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the University of Southern California, says it’s especially important to wear sunscreen when you’re pregnant.

If you do develop melasma patches and they bother you, talk to your dermatologist. Kojic acid and soy are two ingredients that can lighten the patches and are considered safe to use during pregnancy, Shainhouse says, but there are other treatments that can be used after your pregnancy and when you’re done breastfeeding.

Related: Try Reviva’s Brown Spot Night Gel

Have A Razor Handy

When Laura P. was pregnant, she noticed something unusual with her body hair: “I suddenly had to shave my legs every day. I used to shave every two days.”

That’s not uncommon, Shainhouse says. “Pregnancy hormones can make hair darker and boost both its thickness and speed of growth,” she says. “This can occur not only in the pubic area, but on your legs, underarms, face, abdomen, and legs.” Laser hair removal isn’t FDA-approved during pregnancy, she says, so you’ll have to stick to shaving or waxing.

Up Your Moisturizer Game

Pregnant women often suffer from dry, itchy skin, which is why Murrmann recommends increasing your water intake during pregnancy. This can be due to either hormones or dehydration—pregnant women are drinking for two, after all. (According to the Mayo Clinic, women who are pregnant should aim to drink 10 cups of water a day.)

Since expectant moms are also at a risk for stretch marks, Murrmann recommends hopping on the cocoa butter train as early as possible. That, and gaining weight at a slow, steady pace, can help keep stretch marks at bay. Some marks may be unavoidable, but regularly spreading cocoa butter across your belly, hips, and thighs can help to minimize the stretches.

Related: 15 Parents Name The Products That Saved Them When Their Children Were Newborns

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What You Need To Know About The Popular Whole30 Diet

As if Whole30 weren’t popular enough already, the recent release of The Whole30 Cookbook has turned the diet into more of an internet-wide craze. Still, for as buzzy as Whole30 is, it’s pretty misunderstood.

We talked with top registered dietitians, as well as one of the Whole30 creators, to decode what’s on (and off!) the menu—and how to tell if the plan is right for you.

What’s the Whole30 Diet All About?

Whole30 originated in 2009 after co-founder Melissa Hartwig, a certified sports nutritionist, cut out all sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, and food additives from her diet for 30 days—and found herself feeling better than ever—the Whole30 is an elimination diet intended to help people establish a diet rooted in whole foods and identify food sensitivities that may contribute to health related issues.

As in Hartwig’s own experiment, Whole30 dieters are instructed to remove all added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, as well as carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites from their diets for 30 days straight. No exceptions.

Then, once they successfully make it through the 30 days sans slip-ups (one bite of a prohibited food and you start over at day one!), Whole30-ers can slowly reintroduce each food group back into their diet, one food group at a time, generally over the course of 10 days, Hartwig explains. The thought is that you would reintroduce, say grains, on day 31, and then dairy on day 35. Any sudden stomach issues on days 31 through 35 would point to a sensitivity to grains. That might be your cue that you could alleviate future stomach woes by avoiding grains long-term.

Before You Try To Whole30 All Your Health Issues Away…

While many Whole30 dieters and proponents claim that the approach has helped them to have more energy, feel better, and surmount a myriad of health concerns, proceed with care.

“Self-diagnosing food intolerances and allergies—or anything else, really—can easily be inaccurate, if not dangerous,” explains Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If you suspect that you have a medical issue in relation to food, it’s best to talk to your doctor or dietitian for evaluation. Every person is different, and diagnosis isn’t generally as simple as, ‘I feel better today.’” A diagnosis of Celiac disease (a disorder in which gluten damages the small intestines), for example, hinges on the examination of a biopsy taken from the patient’s small intestine.

The creators of Whole30 hear these concerns loud and clear. According to Hartwig, the program is not meant to be a substitute for a medically-supervised elimination diet, and those interested in trying it should always speak with their healthcare practitioner before overhauling their diets.

Axing Foods—And Nutrients?

Self-diagnosing aside, most concerns over the Whole30 revolve around the elimination of foods that are healthy, should someone not have an actual food allergy or intolerance, explains Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., assistant Professor in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Central Washington University.

“The diet eliminates a lot of foods that are packed with benefits, like beans and dairy,” she says. She notes that whenever you remove an entire food group from your diet, you risk nutritional deficiency. (For instance, if you nix dairy for a month, you need to make sure you are getting vitamin D and calcium elsewhere.)

To help pack in as much vitamin D into Whole30 as possible, Hartwig recommends incorporating fatty cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel into your meal rotation. Some of the best Whole30-approved sources of calcium include Chinese cabbage and leafy greens, like spinach.

That’s not to say that the foods you can eat on Whole30 can’t make up a healthful diet. A balanced menu on the program incorporates meats, seafood, eggs, loads of vegetables, some fruit, and unsaturated fats from oils, nuts, and seeds. These are all great foods that can be part of a healthy, well-rounded eating plan, Pritchett says. Major points.

Will You Lose Weight?

Contrary to popular opinion, the Whole30 is not a weight-loss plan, Hartwig explains. Still, that doesn’t mean that people don’t lose weight on it.

In fact, she notes that many people who follow the protocol report losing up to 15 pounds within the month. Delbridge has observed similar amounts of weight lost among Whole30 followers.

Why all of the weight loss on a non-weight-loss diet? The reason is two-fold. First, so many foods are eliminated that people may end up with a caloric deficit, meaning they consume fewer calories than they burn per day, without even trying. (It’s worth noting that the diet does not recommend calorie counting.) Second, the Whole30 diet tends to be high in protein and fat, both of which help to prevent overeating by making you feel full long after each meal, Delbridge says.

Delbridge notes, though, that many people he has seen lose weight throughout the Whole30, gain some or all of it back afterward. He suspects that straight-up eliminating sugar (or any other food) may contribute to increased cravings and potential binges once Whole30 is over.

Many proponents of Whole30, though, claim that following the program actually helped them improve their relationship with food and ultimately reduced cravings.

The Bottom Line

If you want to cut down on (or completely eliminate) your intake of added sugar, alcohol, or food additives, go for it, says Delbridge. “As long as you are getting the nutrients you need, if you feel better not eating a specific food or food group, that’s totally cool,” he says.

And if you suspect you might have an allergy or intolerance to legumes, dairy, or any specific grains (like wheat), systematically removing each food and then reintroducing it into your eating plan is a good first step in identifying any issues. Just make sure to take on the science experiment with a registered dietitian’s oversight, he says. That way, you can be sure that as you cut a food group from your plate, you don’t miss out on any vital nutrients.

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How I Went From Eating 5,000 Calories A Day To Putting Health And Fitness First

As told by The Vitamin Shoppe Health Enthusiast Debbie Burkhart

Healthy living was never a priority for me growing up. As a teenager, I did whatever I could to get out of gym class. I would have much rather curled up with a book than spend time exercising. When I got to college, I lived on pizza and pasta, and developed a nasty addiction to soda. Breakfast often involved cheesy breadsticks and gas station candy.

When I hit 190 pounds and started having trouble tying my shoes, I knew things were bad. But it wasn’t until chest pains regularly stopped me in my tracks that I finally decided to get my health on track.

I downloaded a food-tracker app and got smacked in the face by the reality of my daily diet: I was eating somewhere around 5,000 calories a day. I traveled a lot for work and didn’t realize my fast food meals alone clocked in at over a day’s-worth of calories. I immediately ditched my morning soda and used my food app to make better choices when drive-thrus or chain restaurants were my only meal options.

When I hit 190 pounds and started having trouble tying my shoes, I knew things were bad.

After six months or so, I’d lost 40 pounds by cracking down on my nutrition. I had always laughed at people who worked out, but I wanted to keep seeing changes in my body and feel healthier, so I knew I had to add exercise into the equation. I started doing tae-bo workout videos at home, and asked the trainers at my local gym about strength training and cardio workouts.

Once I started lifting weights, I was hooked. I tried yoga and pilates classes, too, and despite cardio always being a struggle for me, I even incorporated treadmill interval workouts into my routine.

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photo credit: Debbie Burkhart

After a few years of consistently hitting the gym and keeping my portions and calories under control, I took things a little too far. Exercise became my coping mechanism for stress, and I spent more and more time at the gym, until I was spending hours there every single day. My weight dropped down to 116 pounds (I’m 5’5”). I pumped the breaks and cut back on my workout time, and my weight bounced back up to 135, where I’ve hovered ever since.

After six months or so, I’d lost 40 pounds by cracking down on my nutrition. I had always laughed at people who worked out, but I wanted to keep seeing changes in my body and feel healthier

Now my routine feels much more balanced. I split my time among lifting weights, yoga, and a little bit of cardio. I even started teaching mat pilates at my local gym twice a week and set up an aerial yoga rig in my home. I still feel like my 190-pound self sometimes—neither strong nor graceful—and that’s okay. I cried after teaching my first pilates class because I couldn’t believe how far I’d come.

These days, I eat a bagel with light cream cheese for breakfast pretty much every day. (Cheers to flexible eating!) I make foods like chicken, rice, and broccoli or green beans for lunch, and snack on almonds or protein bars throughout the day. I haven’t touched soda, but still crave that giant ice-filled cup from the gas station, so I buy myself a cup of ice and water and mix in a couple scoops of Optimum Nutrition’s grape-flavored Amino Energy, instead.

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photo credit: Debbie Burkhart

Some days I’m exhausted or feel tempted to use food as a crutch for stress—but then I think of the 70-year-olds who make it to every single pilates class I teach, rain or shine. They remind me of the way I want to live my life: They get out there, take care of themselves, and thrive no matter what.

I cried after teaching my first pilates class because I couldn’t believe how far I’d come.

Biggest Advice

I think sometimes we are so ashamed that we’ve let ourselves go that we don’t do what we need to do to turn things around. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; don’t be ashamed to start. Having cracks doesn’t mean you’re broken—you can do it. You just have to take that first step.

Deb’s Go-To Picks From The Vitamin Shoppe

Of course, I love my grape Optimum Nutrition Amino Energy. I sip on that stuff all day. I have a sensitive stomach, so I love D’s Naturals No Cow protein bars, especially the lemon meringue or chocolate banana bread flavors.

 

 

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Is It Worse To Skip A Workout Or Skimp On Sleep?

If you have a busy schedule (and who doesn’t?), chances are you’ve set your alarm for an ungodly hour of the morning in order to squeeze in a workout. Most of the time it just takes a little discipline to drag yourself out of the comfort of your bed, but when your alarm is blaring after a night of tossing and turning and you just can’t shake your sleepiness, should you suck it up or snooze?

Sufficient sleep and exercise are both integral to your health, but if you’re faced with having to sacrifice much-needed  shuteye or a good sweat,  sleep is the answer, says Sina A. Gharib, M.D., sleep researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

Related: Support your immune system with a large selection of supplements.

Sleep helps to regulate your hormones and immune system, says Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., board certified neurologist and sleep specialist at University of Washington Sleep Center. So routinely getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night can lead to serious side effects that can sabotage your health, such as metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, decreased immunity, and obesity.

Plus, if you’re chronically sleep deprived, your early-morning session could be doing more harm than good: You might just sabotage the size or strength gains, or fat-loss results you’re looking to see from your workouts. “Without adequate sleep, our bodies don’t get a chance to recover and rebuild after a workout, meaning they’re in constant breakdown mode,” says says Jim O’Brien, C.P.T., and certified group fitness instructor for Orangetheory Fitness. Not to mention, your workouts themselves will probably decline if you’re feeling super tired, he says. No one wants to walk out of the gym feeling even more zonked than when they walked in.

Related: 5 Signs You Need A Day Off From The Gym

So how can you tell when to push through and when to hit snooze? Be on the lookout for signs of chronic fatigue: “Sleep deprivation causes excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty focusing, and even feelings of depression,” warns Gharib. If you can’t stay awake and alert throughout the day without caffeine, or if you sleep much longer on weekends than you do on weekdays, you aren’t getting enough regular sleep, cautions Watson.

To avoid having to sacrifice your workouts to catch more Zzz’s, O’Brien recommends setting a bedtime for yourself and sticking to it. Then, to avoid falling into a black hole of Facebook videos, put your phone on silent mode and out of reach. If you use your phone for your alarm, then you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off in the morning.

If A.M. training sessions continue to feel like too much of a struggle, you may want to consider hitting the gym after work or dinner—just keep in mind that exercise stimulates the body, and a nighttime workout may cause some people to have trouble falling asleep afterward, according to Watson. He recommends you leave at least one to two hours between the end of your workout and the time you want to hit the sack. Once you’ve got your sleep schedule on lock, though, it’ll be easier to identify what time of day works best for your workouts.

Related: Find a supplement to promote sleep, relaxation, and recovery.

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Could You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder And Not Even Know It?

When it’s cold and dark outside, it’s totally understandable to want to hibernate inside your cozy bedroom watching Netflix all day, every day. But if you find yourself feeling particularly low in the winter—and it’s significantly affecting your quality of life—you may be dealing with something more serious than the winter blues.

You could have something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (a.k.a. SAD). “It’s a real disorder,” says Gretchen Kubacky, Psy.D., a psychologist in Los Angeles, “but because it has this cute little acronym it kind of gets played off in a jokey way.” Cute acronym aside, SAD is nothing to take lightly.

What Is SAD?

SAD is a type of  depression that begins and ends at the same time each year. It typically starts in the fall and lasts through the winter, subsiding when there’s a lot of sunshine, says Kubacky.

The signs and symptoms of SAD are pretty similar to clinical depression: According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), that means frequent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and/or worthlessness, seriously low energy levels, trouble sleeping, and losing interest in your favorite activities. That might explain why even your favorite weekly kickboxing class doesn’t get you jazzed anymore.

Related: 12 Natural Ways To Kick Your Stress To The Curb

Another sign of SAD that may surprise you is a hefty appetite. If you’ve got any of the above symptoms and also find yourself dreaming of eating bagels or chocolate cake 24/7, consider it a red flag. SAD often comes along with a strong craving for sweets and starchy foods, says Coral Arvon, Ph.D., director of behavioral health and wellness at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami. “This is the body’s way of trying to scrounge up some kind of energy to combat how tired and down you’re feeling,” she says. (Carbs cause blood sugar levels to rise, leading to a spike in energy, after all.)

What Causes SAD?

Docs aren’t totally sure on an exact explanation for why some people develop SAD, says Arvon, though quite a few factors seem to be at play.

Biologically, your body’s levels of melatonin, vitamin D, and serotonin could be to blame. Your brain secretes the hormone melatonin when it’s dark outside in order to help your body wind down for sleep. (When you’re exposed to sunlight, your melatonin production decreases and you feel more awake and energized.) So, if it’s dark more often than not, your body may produce too much of the stuff, making you feel way more lethargic than you do during the summer, explains Arvon.

Similarly, the less time you spend basking in the sun, the less vitamin D your body produces. Vitamin D is crucial for healthy bones and immune function, and research has identified a link between low levels of vitamin D and symptoms of depression.

The final potential culprit is serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood. In the winter, people tend to produce less serotonin, says Arvon, which could explain why shorter days and frigid temps leave you feeling down in the dumps.

Who’s Most at Risk?

Geography is obviously a big factor. Those who live in not-so-sunny climates far away from the equator (we’re looking at you, Boston and Toronto) are more likely to experience SAD than those who reside in places like Florida, according to a study published in Depression Research and Treatment. In fact, according to the study, about nine percent of people in Alaska have SAD, compared to just one percent of people in the Sunshine State.

And not-so-good news for the ladies: The same study found that women are a whopping four times more likely to have SAD than men, possibly because women generally experience more hormonal fluctuations than men.

Arvon cautions that those diagnosed with bipolar disorder may also be at an increased risk for SAD, since the change in weather may exacerbate symptoms.

Additionally, according to the NIMH, a family history of depression may also up your risk for SAD.

How Is SAD Treated?

The good news is there are lots of ways to help get this condition under control, even when the sun is nowhere to be found.

One of the best things you can do is invest in a light box, says Kubacky. Light boxes emit bright light, which can help lower your melatonin and boost your vitamin D. “They’re low-risk and easy,” she says.

Another game-changer: exercise. Regular physical activity may help to improve feelings of depression and anxiety, according to Harvard Health Publications. Cognitive behavioral therapy (a type of therapy that focuses on developing alternative ways of thinking and behaving) and meditation can help, too, Avron says.

It’s also important to make social connections so that you don’t feel so isolated, and to try to get some fresh air, even on cloudy days, she says. In fact, a study published in Ecopsychology found that regular group nature walks helped to decrease depression and promote well-being in participants.

Related: New Study Suggests A Healthy Diet May Help Treat Depression