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The Mediterranean diet – why it’s important for mental health

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The Mediterranean diet is the traditional diet of the countries in the Mediterranean Sea region characterized by whole, fresh foods, especially vegetables and fruits. Research has shown the Mediterranean diet to be among the healthiest of diets with a lower incidence of chronic disease and greater longevity. It is currently considered to be the “gold standard” of healthy eating.

It is a primarily plant-based diet with emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans and lentils). Fish and seafood are the primary animal proteins and are recommended to eat several times per week. Poultry is also eaten about once or twice per week. Cheese and yoghurt are great sources of probiotics and are eaten in small to moderate amounts anywhere from daily to weekly. Eggs are also included in the Mediterranean Diet, eaten in moderate amounts – generally about 7 eggs per week, including those used in baking. Red meat and sweet desserts are consumed much less frequently in small amounts only a few times per month. Desserts generally consist of fresh seasonal fruits. Olive oil is the predominant source of fat and is used in cooking and on salads. Honey is the primary sweetener but is used sparingly. Wine is consumed in moderation, one to two glasses per day for men and one glass for women, and usually with meals.

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Why is it important?

In addition to the many proven physical health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, research has shown that a diet of fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, whole grains and good quality sources of protein is essential for decreasing the risk of anxiety and depression. This type of diet is rich in the nutrients that are critical for the regulation of mood by providing the necessary fiber and probiotics involved in proper digestion (if we don’t digest our food properly our bodies don’t utilize the nutrients we ingest) to the production of neurotransmitters that make us feel calm and happy. Processed food has been stripped of the enzymes and many of the nutrients necessary for good mental health.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne examined over 1000 randomly selected women, ages 20-93, assessing for symptoms of depression and anxiety and comparing “traditional” diets to “western” diets. They found that the women who ate a “traditional” diet of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains had less depression and anxiety than those who ate a “western” diet of processed or fried foods, refined grains, and sugary products. A 2009 study in Spain also showed that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, and whole grains and low in red meat and dairy was associated with a lower risk of depression.

The Hordaland Health study looked at the association between diet quality and depression and anxiety in 5731 Norwegian adults. A traditional Norwegian diet composed of fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains was associated with reduced depression and anxiety in women and men and a western-type diet with a higher intake of processed and unhealthy foods was associated with increased depression and anxiety in both women and men.

Recent federal recommendations

The U.S. government’s Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee states that “On average, the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, and high in sodium, calories, saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugars. Underconsumption of the essential nutrients vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber are public health concerns for the majority of the U.S. population”. The report goes on to say, “Emerging evidence also suggests that relationships may exist between dietary patterns and some neurocognitive disorders” (yes!). “The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.”

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Eat more whole natural food – especially vegetables and fruit!

It is important to understand that there is no one particular diet that represents what everyone eats in this part of the world. The Mediterranean region encompasses a diverse range of cultures and traditions in regards to food. When we talk about the “Mediterranean diet”, we are referring to an overall way of eating that involves a wide variety of fresh, whole, primarily plant-based foods. To be fair, this way of eating is very similar to many traditional diets in other parts of the world including Central and South America. Unlike the Western diet, traditional diets worldwide do not include a predominance of processed and refined foods. This is the shift most Americans need to make – a move towards consuming more wholesome, less processed and refined food. Growing more of our own food, shopping at farmers markets when possible, buying more from the fresh produce section of the grocery stores, and including more fish and seafood are all great first steps. Avoiding processed food while incorporating more fresh whole food will go a long way towards better physical and mental health.

2 Responses to “The Mediterranean diet – why it’s important for mental health”

  1. Lori says:

    Love your work!

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  1. What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet? – Nutrition - […] Mental Health Food. (2015) The Mediterranean diet – why it’s important for mental health. [Online] [Accessed 6 October 2017]…

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