The Many Mental Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
An ode to my favourite diet!
Today on the blog I’m talking about my all-time favourite diet: the Mediterranean Diet! Sure, it’s nothing new—the Mediterranean diet has been getting lots of hype for decades now, but I think it’s worth highlighting for it’s immense mental health benefits!
It’s no secret that 2020 has been a stressful year for most of us and good mental health is more important than ever. It’s also worth mentioning that as people become more “woke” when it comes to the diet culture and the body positivity movement, diets are starting to be viewed in a more tainted light. And for good reason! But this is why I love the Mediterranean diet in particular—it’s not about restriction at all and very few foods are “restricted” with this style of eating.
So today I’m going to break down the Mediterranean Diet for you and what research is telling us about it’s major mental health benefits. At the end of the blog post, I’ve also included a one-day Mediterranean Diet meal plan, which I recommend trying out if you’re new to this style of eating!
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet is pretty self-explanatory: it’s an eating protocol based on the traditional foods and eating patterns of people living in Greece, Spain, Southern France, Italy, Turkey, and Northern Africa; the countries surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. The beauty of this diet is that its flavours and foods are as diverse as the countries in the Mediterranean!
Whereas the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) is based heavily on consuming packaged and processed foods, low amounts of colourful and fibre-rich fruits and veggies, lots of grain-fed meats (especially beef, pork, and chicken), and large amounts of sugar and refined oils, the Mediterranean diet takes eating back to basics. There isn’t one way to follow a Mediterranean Diet, but the basics are as follows:
– An emphasis on a variety of colourful, local, raw and cooked fibre-rich veggies and fruits (including starchy veggies like potatoes, yams, and squash)
– Lots of brain- and heart-healthy whole-food fats and oils like extra virgin olive oil, olives, nuts, seeds, and wild fish (one of the primary protein sources in this diet as well)
– A moderate amount of pasture-raised, wild, and organic meats including poultry and lamb (with low amounts of pork and beef)
– A moderate amount of properly prepared plant-based protein and complex carbohydrate sources like legumes and whole grains
– Unrestricted use of bioflavonoid-rich herbs and spices
– Moderate amounts of (biodynamic and organic) resveratrol-rich red and white wine
– Very minimal consumption of processed and packaged foods, refined grains, sugars, and oils
The Gut-Brain Connection
Before we get into the specific research that praises the Mediterranean Diet for its beneficial effects on mental health, I think it’s important to first touch on the gut-brain connection.
As I wrote about in my blog post on Eight Nutrition Essentials to Increase Resilience and Beat Stress, we actually have not one but two brains. The first is obviously the one in our skull, but the second may surprise you.
Our second brain is actually found in the gut! Eating to nourish both the first and second brain is essential for good mental health. Poor gut health has been linked to many neurological imbalances including anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and Alzheimer’s (to name a few).
But how exactly is the gut linked with our actual brain and mental health? This is a good question. It all comes down to the enteric nervous system, a web of neurons found in the gut that determine the function of the GI tract. The enteric nervous system and the central nervous system have a two-way communication system. When one is imbalanced, the other is sure to follow. Think of that visceral, “gut-wrenching” response when you get some terrible news. Or the intense feeling of butterflies in your stomach before a big, nerve-wracking presentation. These physiological responses in the gut (and GI tract) just go to show how entwined these two systems are.
Sadly, those who follow the S.A.D. diet (whether that is actually in America or people living in other countries that are transitioning from their traditional ancestral diet to eat more like Americans do) are reporting higher levels of mental health imbalances than ever. That is because the foods eaten, although plentiful and in vast quantities, are really low and often totally void of nutrients needed to keep both the gut and, in turn, our brains healthy.
Enter the Mediterranean Diet.
What the Science Says about Mental Health and the Mediterranean Diet
So, one of the best things we can do to improve mental health is to focus on nourishing the gut (for a positive domino-effect on the central nervous system) and eating a more traditional ancestral diet. You can customize this based on your own ethnicity, but the reason I love the Mediterranean diet, is that it really reflects a traditional way of eating for most cultures (although there are some outliers).
Another amazing thing about this diet is that it has been studied extensively. In one research paper featured in the British Medical Journal, the Mediterranean diet was shown to have a positive impact on the gut microbiome of older study participants, leading to reduced frailty and improved overall health status. Increasing the population and diversity of beneficial gut bacteria also can also have a positive effect on mental health imbalances like anxiety and depression, thanks to that two-way communication between the enteric and central nervous systems.
Another recent study of the effects of the Mediterranean Diet found that just three months of eating according to this protocol, which in this case heavily focused on the consumption of nuts and extra virgin olive oil, significantly reduced neuroinflammation markers, which could have a positive effect on the development of neurodegenerative diseases in the long-term. It’s no wonder, looking at these two studies, that the Mediterranean Diet is often touted as one of the best ways to naturally increase longevity!
Another mental health benefit of lowering inflammation with the Mediterranean Diet was found in this study, where symptoms of depression were greatly reduced after six months of following the diet. Though it is a complex mood disorder, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that inflammation plays a major role in depression, and a diet high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids containing foods (like oily fish, nuts, seeds, and olive oil) is an amazing way to reduce symptoms. Even if you don’t have clinically diagnosed depression, the vast majority of us would benefit immensely from an inflammation-lowering diet. Especially now during the “pandemic”, as collective stress levels are so much higher.
A One-Day Mediterranean Meal Plan
Below I’ve included an easy one-day meal plan that you can experiment with if you’re interested in trying out the Mediterranean Diet. Another important aspect of this type of protocol is also consistent daily movement. Nutrition doesn’t just begin and end with the food you eat—mindset, sleep patterns, and connections also play a large role in our overall health (and specifically, mental health) and wellbeing. So focusing on getting enough sleep (summer afternoon siesta, anyone?), spending quality time with friends and family, finding periodic moments of stillness to replenish your own personal energy stores, and of course, keeping active and moving throughout the day is a recipe for a happy life and good mental health.
If you try out this one-day meal plan, I’d love to hear what you think! As always, if you have any suggestions on topics for future blog posts, post them in the comments below!