The Mediterranean Diet has something for everyone who is embarking on a healthy eating journey. But the value of the of it goes far beyond your waistline.
There are many health benefits of this fresh, whole-foods approach to nutrition, according to experts. And researchers have found a promising connection between this kind of diet and mental health.
What’s so unique about the Mediterranean Diet? Evelyn Victoria, a clinical dietitian with the University of Miami Health System, explains why eating healthy fats stands out from other healthy nutrition plans.
What foods are part of the Mediterranean Diet?
Evelyn Victoria: It’s important to note there’s variety in the Mediterranean Diet because over 20 countries are part of the Mediterranean region — all with varying cultural/religious influences and customs that have shaped food preferences over time. However, there are certain foods that form the basis for the Mediterranean Diet, such as olives and olive oil, fish, nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
The diet is plant-based, so red meats (and white), eggs, and dairy are consumed moderately, while fish/seafood can be present in most meals. There’s also an emphasis on locally grown/seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The use of fresh and dried herbs is favored over lots of salt. Typically, Mediterranean bread is derived from unrefined wheat or barley flours, which are lower on the glycemic index than refined white flour. This means fewer insulin spikes and increased mood stability.
This isn’t a low-fat diet. This diet is rich in unsaturated fats from olives and olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
The people who live in this region are accustomed to having red wine with meals. However, it is consumed in moderation. If you currently don’t drink red wine or alcohol, I don’t recommend starting now for the sake of following any diet. There’s no grand nutritional role of wine in this particular diet. It’s simply a custom some parts of this region practice. We need to keep in mind that there are risks and benefits associated with alcohol consumption that vary according to age, medical history, and gender. There are studies that show a correlation between alcohol intake and an increased risk of certain cancers.
This way of eating is guided by what’s common and available to this region. While a healthy whole foods diet may include coconut oil, avocados, and tropical fruits like pineapple and bananas, the Mediterranean Diet does not. Because the Mediterranean Diet includes seasonal, locally sourced produce, you’re more likely to consume a wide variety of vitamins and minerals that are lacking in the traditional Western Diet.
What are the benefits of this eating plan?
Victoria: Most of the research on the Mediterranean Diet is focused on determining its protective properties against chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. We’re also investigating the diet’s role in preventing or slowing down cognitive decline in those with dementia. Despite limited research available at the moment, there are certain aspects of the Mediterranean Diet that I do believe can aid with mood and energy levels.
In the current Western diet, there’s an over-consumption of processed foods and a lack of fresh/frozen fruits and vegetables. Processed foods are usually higher in saturated fats and sugar and contain a very low-nutrient profile (unless it is an artificially fortified food).
Think of what happens when you consume a large, sugary beverage.
You may get a momentary sugar high and then feel that sudden grogginess shortly after. It makes sense how these highs and lows affect your overall mood.
Furthermore, we know that frequent consumption of saturated fats and refined sugars increases inflammation in the body, creates insulin resistance, and leads to an increased risk for chronic diseases. There are studies that report a correlation between people diagnosed with multiple chronic medical conditions and a higher risk of depression and anxiety when compared to individuals with no other diseases. All of this creates physiological stress on the body.
This chronic stress can have a negative impact on your immune system, gut health, and brain function. When these systems aren’t performing well, there’s more of a chance you won’t feel well overall. Since the Mediterranean Diet is low in saturated fats, there’s a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes, and other diseases.
Many foods within the Mediterranean Diet have anti-inflammatory properties and are packed with antioxidants (like omega-3 fatty acids). Anti-inflammatory foods can be part of the treatment plan for depression and other mental disorders. Studies have shown that diets low in omega-3s may be related to a higher risk of depression. Antioxidants are also important for brain function.
The Mediterranean Diet is a plant-based diet. Dishes are created around what is in season and what’s found locally. So, the nutrient profile of this diet is diverse.
With so much variety, micro-nutrient deficiencies are potentially less common. Vitamin A, found in tomatoes and apricots, reduces cognitive decline. Vitamin E, found in nuts and green leafy vegetables, also aids with cognitive function.
This diet is also great for gut health. There’s growing research on the gut-brain relationship and how it benefits overall health. Beans, fruits, and veggies provide food for our healthy gut bacteria. If your gut is healthy and happy, your immune system and central nervous system will also reap the rewards.
What else should people know about this diet?
Victoria: The benefits are not gained by adopting this diet for a short period of time. Dietary patterns have a compounding effect on our health.
Keep in mind that the Mediterranean Diet is not just about food. It’s a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and spending more time outdoors and with family/friends. All of these things help reduce stress and anxiety. This diet should not replace any current treatment plan in place for depression or other mental illnesses before consulting with your doctor and registered dietitian.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.
After spending a year reanalyzing their data, researchers republished it in the New England Journal of Medicine with the same result. The Mediterranean diet cuts the risk of strokes and heart attacks for high risk individuals by approximately 30%. Read more.