Mediterranean Diet Can Thwart Depression

mediterranean foods whole grain bread, hummus, tomato, basil, and olive oil

Beating the Blues with an Anti-inflammatory, Whole Foods Based Diet

We’ve heard of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. But did you know it can also benefit your mental health? Couldn’t we all benefit from having more resilience against stress, depressed and anxious thoughts, and wake up feeling good about life in the morning?

The Mediterranean diet is well documented to have many health benefits, such as a reduced risk of chronic disease. It is characterized by traditional dietary patterns found in the Mediterranean region, including Greece, Italy, and Spain. Some key benefits linked to the Mediterranean diet are:

  1. Heart Health: The Mediterranean diet is known to promote heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease. It emphasizes the consumption of heart-healthy fats, such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds, while limiting saturated and trans fats. It also includes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, which provide fiber, antioxidants, and other beneficial nutrients for cardiovascular health.
  2. Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases: Following a Mediterranean diet has been associated with a decreased risk of various chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer (such as breast and colorectal cancer), and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and antioxidants in the diet, along with the healthy fats, may contribute to these protective effects.
  3. Weight Management: The Mediterranean diet has been shown to be effective for weight management and promoting a healthy body weight. It encourages the consumption of nutrient-dense foods and discourages processed foods, sugary beverages, and unhealthy snacks. The emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods and the inclusion of moderate portions of lean proteins and healthy fats can support satiety and long-term weight control.
  4. Improved Brain Health: The Mediterranean diet has been linked to better cognitive function and a reduced risk of cognitive decline and age-related conditions like dementia. The combination of nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil, along with regular physical activity, may contribute to brain health.
  5. Anti-Inflammatory Effects: The Mediterranean diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and olive oil. These foods provide a variety of antioxidants and phytochemicals that can help reduce inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with various health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
  6. Longevity: Following a Mediterranean diet has been associated with increased longevity and a lower risk of premature death. The combination of a balanced and varied diet, along with an active lifestyle and social engagement, contributes to overall health and well-being.

With all of these benefit that minimize chronic disease and obesity, which are associated with depression in and of themselves, it makes sense that a Mediterranean diet would be linked to a lower risk of depression.

It’s important to note that the Mediterranean diet is not solely about individual foods but rather a way of eating that emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, mindful eating, and a balanced approach to nutrition. It also encourages regular physical activity, social connections, and enjoyment of meals with family and friends.

stressed out woman

The Mental Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet has been associated with potential benefits for mood and mental health, including a reduced risk of depression and improved overall well-being. While diet alone cannot replace professional treatment for mood disorders, here’s how the Mediterranean diet may contribute to mental well-being:

  1. Nutrient-rich Foods: The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients play a crucial role in brain health and have been linked to improved mood and cognitive function.
  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: The Mediterranean diet includes foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish like salmon and sardines, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with a reduced risk of depression and may have mood-stabilizing effects.
  3. Antioxidants and Anti-inflammatory Properties: The diet’s emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and olive oil provides a rich array of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress have been linked to the development of mood disorders, and the anti-inflammatory properties of Mediterranean foods may help mitigate these effects.
  4. Balanced Blood Sugar Levels: The Mediterranean diet promotes complex carbohydrates from whole grains and legumes, which are digested more slowly and result in a more balanced release of glucose into the bloodstream. Stable blood sugar levels can help regulate mood and energy levels.
  5. Reduced Consumption of Processed Foods: The Mediterranean diet discourages the consumption of processed and refined foods, which are often high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and artificial additives. These food types have been associated with an increased risk of depression and mood disturbances.
  6. Social and Cultural Factors: The Mediterranean diet is not just about food but also includes social and cultural aspects, such as enjoying meals with others, regular physical activity, and a relaxed approach to eating. These factors contribute to overall well-being and may have a positive impact on mood.

While the Mediterranean diet shows promise in supporting mental health, it is important to remember that individual responses may vary. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or other mood disorders, it is crucial to seek professional help from a healthcare provider or mental health specialist who can provide appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and support. The Mediterranean diet can be part of an overall healthy lifestyle but should not be considered a sole solution for mental health conditions.

But is coffee part of a Mediterranean diet?

Yes, coffee is a part of a Mediterranean diet. In fact, a large study of 19,888 participants found a 22% lower risk of all-cause mortality for each 2 additional cups of total coffee per day.  However, there is usually a bell curve to the benefits and harms in life. Meaning that while 2 cups can be beneficial, large amounts of coffee has also been found to be detrimental to our health.

Another thing to keep in mind is how the coffee is prepared. The coffee consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet is not full of added sugar. Caffeine combined with sugar may worsen spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. Spiking your blood sugar is something we want to aim to avoid.

How does the DASH diet compare to the Mediterranean diet?

There really are not many major differences between the DASH (which stand for ‘dietary approaches to stop hypertension’) diet and Mediterranean diet. They both focus on eating mostly whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

Differences are that the Mediterranean diet is more restrictive when it comes to meat, emphasizing eating more seafood, whereas the DASH diet encourages lean meat/animal protein no matter the source.

The Mediterranean diet also allows more fat. However, the fats that are included are sourced from olive oil, avocado, pasture raised dairy products, and fish. These fats are more anti-inflammatory in nature.

When it comes to the DASH diet vs the Mediterranean diet, it is interesting to note that research has found stronger benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet pattern. In a study of 2020 individuals, high adherence to the Mediterranean diet, and not to the DASH diet, was associated with a lower risk of fatal and non-fatal heart disease related events after a 10 year study period. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet, rather than the DASH diet, may most effectively lower your long term risk of heart disease.

Your Mediterranean Diet Shopping List Guide

To get you up and running on this foundational diet to benefit your health and well-being, print out this free Mediterranean Diet Shopping List Guide as a thank you for taking the time to visit this page! You may also want to sign-up for the Root Deep Nutrition and Wellness newsletter to get your free guide about 5 Nutrients to Benefit Your Mental Health and the Foods that Have Them!

A few references that were used in this article:

Navarro AM, Martinez-Gonzalez MÁ, Gea A, Grosso G, Martín-Moreno JM, Lopez-Garcia E, Martin-Calvo N, Toledo E. Coffee consumption and total mortality in a Mediterranean prospective cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018 Nov 1;108(5):1113-1120. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy198. PMID: 30475964.

Critselis E, Kontogianni MD, Georgousopoulou E, Chrysohoou C, Tousoulis D, Pitsavos C, Panagiotakos DB. Comparison of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approach Stop Hypertension in reducing the risk of 10-year fatal and non-fatal CVD events in healthy adults: the ATTICA Study (2002-2012). Public Health Nutr. 2021 Jun;24(9):2746-2757. doi: 10.1017/S136898002000230X. Epub 2020 Aug 3. PMID: 32744196; PMCID: PMC10195528.

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Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.

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