Mediterranean Diet May Lower Your Risk for Depression

Researchers say eating a plant-based diet can reduce inflammation, and that can lower the risk for depression.

A Mediterranean diet can do more than help you lose weight. Getty Images

It seems you can’t go anywhere in the healthcare system these days without being urged to adopt a Mediterranean diet.

That’s the plan that emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.

It also replaces butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola, as well as using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods.

Steaks or other red meat is limited to no more than a few times a month.

If any of this makes you feel downhearted, consider this: A new study has concluded a Mediterranean diet can help reduce your risk for depression.

According to the research published last month in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a diet low in saturated fat, sugar, and processed foods can reduce the risk of depression by 24 percent over a 12-year period.

Researchers did a meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults.

They said the analysis demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality.

The studies utilized an array of dietary measures, including different measures of adherence to the Mediterranean diet, the Healthy Eating Index, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and the Dietary Inflammatory Index.

A lower inflammatory index was associated with lower depression incidence in four longitudinal studies.

The Mediterranean diet is also linked to a reduced incidence of cancer, as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may also have a reduced risk of breast cancer.

For these reasons, most major scientific organizations encourage healthy adults to adapt a style of eating like that of the Mediterranean diet.

“A plant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet can help prevent depression,” explained Dr. Camille Lassale, a research associate at the University College London and a member of the research team that did the study.

People who most closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet had a 33 percent lower risk of developing depression over the next 8 to 12 years compared to people whose food choices least resembled that diet, researchers said.

In contrast, a diet high in saturated fat, sugar, and processed food was associated with an increased likelihood of depression.

The research team went as far as to suggest that dietary advice should form part of mental health treatment.

“This is a nicely done systematic review,” Mary Fristad, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral health, psychology, and nutrition at The Ohio State University, told Healthline.

If your favorite method of coping with depression is retiring to the couch with a blanket and a box of doughnuts, it may help to focus on small steps.

“We all eat comfort food on a short-term basis,” Fristad explained. “There is a relationship between healthy eating and depression.”

But it is not a matter of cause and effect. It’s a way of changing the odds to be more in your favor.

Eating a plant-based diet reduces inflammation in the brain.

The diet also includes avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol. Although wine in moderation is fine.

In working with patients, Fristad uses an educational approach she calls SEE, which stands for Sleep, Eating, and Exercise.

Improving all three areas enhances the patient’s ability to move toward a healthier lifestyle.

“It’s a nice thing that there is a recommendation for mental health that is the same as for physical health,” Fristad said.

She stressed the importance of avoiding foods that are inflammatory. She also noted that the study did not cover coffee, so it is unclear if caffeinated beverages are good for a Mediterranean food strategy.

“Inflammation affects the brain,” she said. “Inflammation changes vasculation and increases insulin resistance.”

Lassale sums it up this way: “There is also emerging evidence that shows that the relationship between the gut and brain plays a key role in mental health, and that this axis is modulated by gastrointestinal bacteria, which can be modified by our diet.”

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