Mediterranean Diet Improves Mental Health, Study Finds

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish has repeatedly been found to improve mental health

Peter Simons
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A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish—and low in processed foods (known as the Mediterranean diet) has been repeatedly suggested to have a positive effect on physical health, mental health, and quality of life (QoL). Now, a new randomized controlled trial has demonstrated that effect yet again for people with depression. The researchers found that depression scores and quality of life were both improved in a group with this diet when compared to a group receiving only social supports.

According to the researchers, “Higher Mediterranean diet scores were significantly associated with lower depression, anxiety, negative affect and better coping and overall QoL.”

Photo Credit: Flickr

These findings are consistent with another study published this year, which found that the Mediterranean diet resulted in remission of depressive symptoms in about 33% of participants—compared to only 8% of the control group. Another study this year suggested that nutritional deficiencies could be related to psychotic experiences as well.

The current analysis was led by researchers at the Centre for Population Health Research, University of South Australia, and included two groups. One group, the MedDiet group, received workshops focused on nutritional education and cooking skills, and were given ingredients, recipes, and fish oil supplements. The other group received social support get-togethers throughout the intervention, instead of nutritional support.

As expected, both groups demonstrated improvements on all measures, including depression and quality of life. After all, social support has been shown to be effective for both reducing depression and for increasing quality of life. However, the nutritional intervention had an effect above and beyond the social support component.

According to the researchers, “The MedDiet group reported significantly greater improvements in depression and overall mental health-related QoL compared to the social group. Improvements in a range of mental health outcomes were significantly correlated with improvements in diet over 3 months.”

The researchers found “60% fewer persons experiencing extremely severe levels of depression, 72% of anxiety and 69% of stress in the MedDiet group” than in the social support group.

The intervention lasted for three months, but the improvements appeared to persist over time. Reduced depression scores and improved quality of life scores remained after six months.

Another benefit of the Mediterranean diet is that it reduces risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). People with mental health diagnoses are more likely to experience CVD, which may be at least partially due to psychiatric medications. A dietary intervention like this could improve symptoms and improve cardiovascular functioning at the same time.

In the study, the DASS questionnaire was used to determine levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, while quality of life was measured using the AQoL-8D. This measure includes eight factors, including independent living, pain, senses, happiness, self-worth, coping, relationships, and mental health. The PANAS questionnaire was used to measure positive and negative emotional states.

One limitation of the study was its large drop-out rate. 152 participants began the study, but only 95 were available at three-month follow-up, and 85 completed six-month follow-up. The researchers noted that many of the participants in the social support control group were disappointed that they did not receive the nutritional intervention, so drop-out was higher in that group.

The researchers put these findings in the context of the food habits of Western cultures.

“Westernized societies have developed an alarming culture of increased takeaway and ultra-processed food consumption which not only has dire health consequences but has also removed people from enjoying the whole process of growing, cooking, and enjoying good wholesome food together. With the increased personal, societal and financial burden of chronic physical and mental illness, getting back to basics by promoting cooking skills and family/group meals could be such a simple yet powerful and empowering approach to healthcare and prevention.”

 

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Parletta, N., Zarnowiecki, D., Cho, J., Wilson, A., Bogomolova, S., Villani, A. . . . O’Dea, K. (2017). A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutritional Neuroscience, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320 (Link)

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Peter Simons
MIA-UMB News Team: Peter Simons comes from a background in the humanities where he studied English, philosophy, and art. Now working on his PhD in Counseling Psychology, his recent research has focused on conflicts of interest in the psychopharmaceutical research literature, the use of antipsychotic medications in the treatment of depression, and the general philosophical and sociopolitical implications of psychiatric taxonomy in diagnosis and treatment.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. It’s rather absurd this is news to the “mental health” community.

    I’m a big fan of “growing, cooking, and enjoying good wholesome food together … getting back to basics by promoting cooking skills and family/group meals could be such a simple yet powerful and empowering approach to healthcare and prevention.” I do agree, and what’s great is when you raise your children in this manner, they end up being great cooks, too.

    I will admit, however, I was involved in a weekly youth group program while raising my children, which included a family style meal each week. I was rather shocked to learn that that was the only family meal many of the children ever experienced, and this was in an “upper class” neighborhood.

    It’s really a shame our society’s morals, goals, and norms have gone so far astray from what is normal human behavior, that common sense is now “news.”

  2. A Mediterranean diet is delicious! I also highly recommend it.

    It has also been shown that the Easter Bunny’s longevity is due mainly to his diet of carrots and lettuce, supplemented with micronutrient’s. Despite Santa Claus’s rotund figure, it is actually his diet of fish and herbs that makes him so jolly (although he probably also supplements his diet with micronutrients). The Tooth Fairy’s healthy teeth are certainly attributable to a Mediterranean diet and micronutrients as well.

    All of this, in good fun, is to suggest that although a healthy Mediterranean diet is certainly a wonderful thing, the notion that such a diet is key to so-called “mental health” or to preventing so-called “mental illness” is absurd. The myth of mental illness may continue to prevail in our unquestioning and gullible society, but that is no reason why we should buy into it.

    Happy (psychiatry-free) new year! and Happy healthy eating.

  3. If you like to ingest your mercury and other highly toxic heavy metals in fishy form, then a fish-rich diet is the way to go.

    Fish are also a great way to ensure you get your full daily intake of plastic particulates.

    If you prefer to forego the heavy metals and the plastic particulates as much as possible, then forego the fish. Try alternative healthy foods containing your needed amounts of pesticides and other carcinogens.

    Mediterranean people are not more happy than others. But they are often more demonstrative and upbeat. I don’t know who came up with the idea that Mediterranean people were more happy. But a great bit of trolling, all said.

    • It’s the all important component of leaving out context to make something seem like a positive result. What are the socioeconomic situations of the Mediterraneans? How does their social hierarchy function? Do any of these people even understand the complexity of what we call “Mediterranean” people and their vast variances in diet over their large region? The diet basis picks Greece, southern Italy and Spain and disregards the other ethnic food traditions in the area. This area has the climate to produce much of it’s own fruits and vegetables and doesn’t depend on grocers to feed them highly genetically modified produce that will germinate before it rots. But, you forgot to mention the impact of Fukishima’s nuclear waste on the aquatic life of the western coast of the US, the lasting impact on the Gulf Coast from the BP oil spill and the results of fracking on water supplies. Raising the fish you eat in the US in the toilet would be healthier. And. I know it comes as a shock, but too many people in the US don’t have access to “good” food or the time to prepare it.
      You don’t have a “healthy” diet in a toxic environment.

      • Agreed. In the city where I live there are numerous food deserts because many of the stores have pulled out of certain neighborhoods. They claim that they suffer too much theft and that the neighborhoods are dangerous. It’s no wonder then that the populations in these areas eat junk food since that’s all that’s available to them. Many don’t have access to cars to travel to other areas of the city that contain numerous stores. And some would say that these people can take the bus. Well, the bus company has rules that allow people to take only two small bags onto the bus with them. While some of the bus drivers turn a blind eye to how many bags you carry on many of them are sticklers and will not let you board.

        But as you point out, the food in stores is not always good for you either. Most of the fruits and vegetables on the shelves in the produce sections have lost at least half of their nutrient value because they’ve been in transit from all over the world and are not as fresh as the stores claim them to be. And yet you pay nice, high prices for these things. You’re often better off buying frozen fruits and vegetables which have been flash frozen and contain more valuable nutrients. I can remember the days that the produce department was only filled really during the spring and summer since we relied on things trucked in from the surrounding areas. We didn’t ship things from all over the world for our own convenience year round.

        • I know about this because I worked in a produce department for a very large company that will remain anonymous. If things aren’t setting on the shelves losing nutrients they are sitting in the cold storage area on shelves. Plus, when you go to buy things in the produce department the freshest and newest things are at the back of the shelf or at the bottom of the container that you’re picking things from. No one really knows how old produce really is these days because of the shipping from foreign countries and from what I’ve described here. If you don’t get your produce from your own garden or a community garden then you’re eating old stuff, plain and simple.

  4. Failure to grasp that what people consume (including the quality of the air they breathe, how much sun they get, the toxins and stress they are exposed to, the drugs they take and the quality of the food/nutrients they eat) is critical to the level of HEALTH they enjoy, how they think and feel, how well they are able to deal with the stress of life is mind boggling.
    To divorce food, diet and other lifestyle factors from ones health, is the epitome of ignorance and the worst possible fall out of the reductionist biological medical model. It assumes and is ignorant of the fact that human beings have bodies that actually require basic nutrients that support life and cause death.
    The Social Determinants of Health have already shown that access to decent food, and other basic necessities of life are what create healthy people and communities.
    How can someone grasp that ‘mental illness’ is a fraud and at the same time nurture a massive glitch in thinking that cannot connect nutrition and lifestyle to how healthy someone is?
    Reading these comments, it is sadly clear why we can’t fix the problems; people have no idea what health is or how to create it. It honestly makes me question if these people are trolls, Allopathic misinformation mongers or just ———- ————- ————.