Is the Mediterranean diet good for mental health?

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Can the Mediterranean diet boost mental as well as physical health? A new study would suggest so.

It’s a familiar story. You are confronted with a range of diets when you seek information on how to improve your health by changing your eating habits.  Some have scientific backing, others don’t. Some are based on the sensible consumption of wholefoods, others just concentrate on a fad “new” ingredient. Many of these are touted as the “next big thing” in wellness and weight loss, though most are eventually discredited as scientific studies reveal how lacking they really are. It’s more than annoying, as the hype that surrounds the false, money-spinning diets obscures the effectiveness of those that do work.

One of those that is tried and tested by scientific research (and comes with added flavour) is the Mediterranean diet. Based on a strong emphasis on traditional wholefoods and healthy living, it has become well-known for its nutritious properties and is synonymous with all-round good health. The diet is also at the forefront of the push to return to encouraging people to eat real foods. After all what could be more traditional than the foods that sustained our ancestors in the Mediterranean region?

The evidence is that the Mediterranean diet is helpful in boosting resistance to cardiovascular disease and controlling diet-based conditions such as diabetes. According to scientific study comparative website Authority Nutrition, studies show “…the Mediterranean diet is very healthy and may help prevent some of the world’s leading killers. It is obviously a much better option than the standard low-fat diet that is still being recommended all around the world.”

However a recent study conducted by researchers at Australia’s Deakin University has thrown up a vital link with improved mental health. According to Deakin’s Professor Felice Jacka, there is now evidence that the diet has an important positive effect on mental health.: “We already know that diet has a very potent impact on the biological aspects of our body that affect depression risks,” she said. “The immune system, brain plasticity, and gut microbiota seem to be central not just to our physical health, but also our mental health and diet, of course, is the main factor that affects the gut microbiota.”

The link between the diet and improved mental health is not new. According to this 2008 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, ”… mental and physical health function was directly associated with adherence to the Mediterranean diet in both sexes.”

Interestingly the study also linked the positive effects of a relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle with more emphasis on sharing meals and shopping at markets. A more convivial way of eating that is advocated by followers of the Slow Food Movement throughout the world.

“Although speculative, it is reasonable to assume that a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet also reflects a higher adherence to the Mediterranean lifestyle, including eating at home, expending time cooking, sharing lunchtime with other people and going to the market to buy foods. Indeed, using lunchtime for social communication and regeneration within family structures may improve self perceived quality of life,” said the report.

A little bit of history…

If you’re new to the diet — and impressed by its physical and mental health benefits — you may be thinking of trying it out. But what exactly is the Mediterranean diet? What ingredients should you look for at the markets? While there are some regional variations, the diet consists of ingredients used in the cooking of the region for thousands of years. As with all regional cuisines, there is an emphasis on those foods most available. In the Mediterranean it is legumes, wholegrains, fresh fruit, nuts and olive oil.

While the diet includes such famous meat dishes as kibbeh and souvlaki, the original Mediterranean diet was far more plant based.

“It was a poor man’s diet. There wasn’t a lot of meat,” said Associate Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos, from Melbourne’s La Trobe University in a 2013 interview with the ABC. “There was a bit of fish because fish was more available… but primarily they subsisted on plant foods and legumes as they main source of proteins.”

“[There were] lots of casseroles where in a serve you would get 60 to 70 grams of meat but lots of vegetables,” she adds. “So the casserole was filled with peas and carrots and artichokes and zucchini and then there’s a salad on the side. There was half a kilo of fruit and half a kilo of vegetables eaten per person per day.”

Common sense would say that trying the Mediterranean diet is well worth the effort. While strict adherence is not necessary to make improvements, the evidence would now suggest that a diet based on Mediterranean foods will boost both mental and physical health, as well as adding essential nutrients to our diet. It was author and food critic Michael Pollan who adopted the mantra “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. A true Mediterranean diet would tick all these boxes as well as improve your mental wellbeing according to the latest evidence.

Interested in comparing a number of studies on the diet? Check Authority Nutrition’s article here.

Some great Mediterranean Diet recipes can be found in Judith Wells’ Slim and Healthy Mediterranean Cooking.


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