The Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet on Mental Health

As the days get shorter and colder, Tom Rusbridge explores the possible positive impact of converting to a Mediterranean diet this autumn.

The expanding conversation surrounding mental health in recent years has led to countless new studies and suggestions on the best possible treatments. With this fusillade of facts, figures and findings, each claiming to have the best new solution to all things ‘mental health’ it can be hard to know whose advice to follow. 1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from mental health problems and whilst this number isn’t growing, recent years have shown that the way in which people cope with mental health problems may be getting worse. Surveys have shown an increase in people who self-harm and have suicidal thoughts[2].

This is not another article bragging to know the new, cure-all, magical ointment. Mental health is an enormous umbrella term that describes all sorts of complex issues and I don’t believe there are any sure-fire methods to treat any one of those issues. However, in my five years of struggling with depression and anxiety I have found a number of methods that have helped me get on top of things. The one I will be discussing here is diet; specifically a Mediterranean one.

Now I would love to tell you that takeaway pizza and ready-meal, microwave pasta will cure you of all ailments and leave you feeling great but, as I’m sure many of you have learnt from personal experience, this is not the case. What I mean by a ‘Mediterranean diet’ is one that is mainly-plant based as well as rich in fish oils, mono-unsaturated fats and wholegrain fibre: nuts, seeds, fish, white meat (if any), brown bread and pasta, and mountains of veg. Whilst a new diet can be quite a daunting prospect, especially for someone in the midst of low mood, this diet includes space for an incredible variety in meals and focuses more on what to include as opposed to what to cut out.

The health benefits of this diet on physical health have long been known but there is now growing evidence to suggest it may be good for your mind as well as your body. Previous research has shown that a Mediterranean diet can help protect against Alzheimer’s.A study as far back as 2006 found the intake of folic acid and vitamin B12 (nutrients prevalent within the Mediterranean diet) to be inversely associated with depression[3].  A meta-analysis conducted in 20144]   revealed the diet as having beneficial effects on the occurrence of stroke, cognitive impairment and depression. Gugielmo M. Trovato from the University of Catania called this study: “very important, as it outlines how neurological conditions, often studied separately are linked to each other within their relationship with nutritional profile”. In layman’s terms this study shows a Mediterranean diet to be more beneficial to mental health than was considered possible.

There are definitely limits to both the research done in the area and the findings of this research. As of yet there is no conclusive proof that this diet can actually be used to treat pre-existing issues. Moreover, there are a great deal of other factors to consider when tackling mental health issues such as levels of stress, physical activity and financial pressure. However, there is a long-established link between diet and mental health, it appears that when trying to improve diet, moving towards a Mediterranean one is a good start.

So how can you put this into practice? One meal that has become a staple of my diet is a chickpea salad. Chickpeas, red onion, and tomatoes with a healthy coating of olive oil is the base and to this you can add a whole host of accompaniments, from grated carrot or cucumber, kale, spinach, avocado, chia seeds, walnuts, a fried egg or some tinned fish. This is a good place to start and if you’re interested in more recipes  they can be found here: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet-recipes/art-20046682

Now I appreciate, we are all students here. The vast majority of us will struggle to afford splashing out on fresh produce but this diet can be achieved on a budget. Tinned things are your friends; fish, chickpeas, sweetcorn and beans can be bought in vast quantities for very cheap. Admittedly things like avocadoes, chia seeds and nuts tend to seem expensive for what you get but if you consider these foods for their pound for pound nutritional value, you are much better off spending your money on these than the ever-alluring microwave meals. Furthermore, the money I have saved on meat since starting this diet greatly outweighs what I have spent subsequently. 

I would always recommend a holistic approach to mental health; you’re unlikely to feel the benefits of a healthy diet if you’re stressed out of your mind, with no support group and haven’t got out of bed all day. However, when paired with regular exercise, some self-care and a steady circle of supportive friends this diet can have a tangible, positive effect on mood and wellbeing. So, while it may be expensive at points, it may be time-consuming and laborious teaching yourself new recipes and if you are seriously suffering with mental health there is no substitute for seeking professional help. However, I truly believe the Mediterranean diet can be a great first step to tackling, or even preventing, the problem. 

Bibliography:

  1.  McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
  2. McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.
  • Sánchez-Villegas, A., Henríquez, P., Bes-Rastrollo, M., & Doreste, J. (2006). Mediterranean diet and depression. Public Health Nutrition, 9(8A), 1104-1109.
  • Psaltopoulou, T. , Sergentanis, T. N., Panagiotakos, D. B., Sergentanis, I. N., Kosti, R. and Scarmeas, N. (2013), Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta‐analysis. Ann Neurol., 74: 580-591