Food, Science and Health
The Mediterranean Diet, largely known for being both healthy and delicious, is also a great complement to your overall mental health and emotional well-being.
Story by Ann Butenas
Known as a plant-based diet and touted for all of its health benefits, the Mediterranean Diet has become an integral part of the eating plan for many people over the years. No matter what new diets tend to hit the market every year, the Mediterranean Diet continues leading the charge, and with each passing year, its list of health benefits expands.
You are probably quite familiar with the Mediterranean Diet by now. It is rich in fruits, whole grains, heart-healthy fats, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. These tend to be the traditional foods associated with those who live in countries near the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Greece, Italy, and France. Over the years, researchers have come to realize individuals who live in these areas tend to be quite healthy and are typically at low risk for many chronic illnesses and diseases.
This popular diet – or perhaps we should say lifestyle – is known for its benefits in promoting weight loss and staving off heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, strokes, and even premature death. The Mediterranean Diet is a great eating plan if you want to protect yourself against these diseases and perhaps even add years to your life.
Interestingly, however, in addition to longevity and the physical health perks, the Mediterranean Diet is also associated with improved mental health. It can reduce the risk of depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness. It does this through its anti-inflammatory approach to eating.
For example, when you consume a large sugary soda and some ice cream, you may temporarily feel energetic after the sugar high hits you. Then, you will most likely tumble dramatically to a sugar low. That roller coaster of ups and downs can affect your mood.
Further, when you consume foods that are high in saturated fats and all of those refined sugars you shouldn’t eat in the first place, more inflammation is created in the body, which leads to insulin resistance. Translation? You open the door to those aforementioned chronic ailments.
Additionally, studies have shown when someone has one or more chronic disease, they are at a greater risk for anxiety and depression as compared to those who do not suffer from those illnesses. This leads to physiological stress on the body. That, in turn, creates disruption within your immune system, brain function, and gut health. When these systems are not running optimally within your body, you can feel down and unwell, both physically and emotionally.
In other words, when you have decreased inflammation within your body, you can lower your risk for depression and other mental illnesses. Some researchers have suggested that dietary guidelines should be part of an overall mental health treatment plan.
Think about this, too: when you feel down and depressed, you may be tempted to just grab a box of cookies or a bag of chips, head for the couch, and watch TV for hours. Sure, that may feel comfortable and cozy for a while, but in reality, you have set yourself up for mental unbalance. You will probably find that once you begin to eat healthier foods, your overall mood and outlook improve dramatically. There is a link between gut health and brain health that can determine your mood and proclivity towards depression and anxiety.
So, if you want to uplift your spirits and improve your mood, avoid foods that cause inflammation within your body and choose from a healthy and tasty menu of anti-inflammatory goodies, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, lentils, oats, brown rice, barley, whole wheat bread, salmon, tuna, shrimp, oysters, crab, chicken, duck, turkey, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, extra virgin olive oil, and avocados. While this is not an all-inclusive list, it does cover the majority of the types of foods indicative of a Mediterranean Diet. Avoid soda, candies, cookies, chips, crackers, processed foods, baked goods, and fast foods. Water should be your primary beverage of choice on this eating plan, but coffee and tea are fine, provided you do not add copious amounts of sugar and cream to them.
In short, this diet that is rich in healthy plant-based foods and low in animal foods and has a primary focus on seafood and fish has been associated with improved physical and mental health. You should always remember the Mediterranean Diet is more than just a focus on a particular eating plan. It must also work in concert with an active lifestyle, getting enough sleep, spending time outdoors, and enjoying time with your family and friends. All of these things help mitigate anxiety and stress.
Finally, as with any new diet or exercise plan, we strongly suggest you consult with your primary care physician or other health care provider. The Mediterranean Diet is not meant to replace any treatment plan for mental illness to which you may be currently subscribing.
Sources: umiamihealth.org, healthline.com, psychiatry.org