Depression is challenging to treat during the best of times. During the pandemic it has been especially difficult, because therapists have been overwhelmed with cases. Zoom therapy is not always an ideal setting for everyone. That is why a small study from Australia is so interesting, as it suggests that eating the Mediterranean way can help combat this mood disorder (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2022).
Treating Depression by Eating the Mediterranean Way:
The researchers recruited young men between 18 and 25 years of age who were suffering from moderate to severe depression. At random, they assigned 72 men to follow a Mediterranean diet or to get befriending therapy for three months. Those receiving befriending therapy served as the control group. The young men following a Mediterranean diet were asked to concentrate on eating legumes, colorful vegetables, nuts, oily fish and whole grains and to use olive oil in their cooking.
At the end of the study, the people who had followed a Mediterranean diet had lower depression scores and better quality of life scores. In addition, they scored higher on markers measuring adherence to a Mediterranean diet.
The investigators note that
“emerging adulthood also offers an opportunity for early lifestyle interventions, such as dietary change, as many are learning to cook and are taking control of their food choices for the first time.”
“These dietary improvements lead to significant improvements in depressive symptoms with no observed side effects.”
The lead author remarked,
“We were surprised by how willing the young men were to take on a new diet. Those assigned to the Mediterranean diet were able to significantly change their original diets, under the guidance of a nutritionist, over a short time frame.”
Previous Research on Diet Against Depression:
This is not the first study to show depressed people benefit from a more healthful diet. Epidemiologists have long known that people who eat a lot of junk food are more vulnerable to depression. Australian researchers have just conducted a study to see whether improving diet also improves mood (PLoS One, Oct. 9, 2019). They wanted to know whether eating the Mediterranean way would make a difference for young adults.
What Happens When Young People Start Eating the Mediterranean Way?
The investigators recruited 74 college students assessed as having “moderate or higher depression symptoms.” In addition, only students whose responses to a dietary questionnaire indicated food choices high in sugar and fat participated in the study. Actually, 101 young adults began the study, but some dropped out along the way.
For three weeks, the students randomly assigned to eating the Mediterranean way ate more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. They tried to devour more fish instead of beef and olive oil in place of butter. They also consumed fewer soft drinks, refined carbs and high sugar foods. At the same time, the researchers encouraged them to add more nuts and seeds, unsweetened dairy products and spices to their daily menus.
The control group continued with their usual poor eating patterns. At the close of the study, 38 students in each group had followed through and provided complete data. The researchers were careful to avoid exam period so that they wouldn’t add to the students’ stress.
How Did the Students Fare on a Mediterranean Diet?
The students in the Mediterranean diet group experienced an improvement in their depression symptoms. By the end of the study, their scores on a standardized depression scale were within the normal range. Although the dietary intervention was brief (just three weeks), the students were still doing well three months later. Students who cut back most on processed foods got the biggest improvement.
The control group had no significant changes in their depression scores and continued to be moderately depressed.
The scientists concluded:
“The current intervention involved such a small degree of face-to-face contact and very little cost or risk, thus there are few downsides to adopting this approach to improving mood. Conversely, there is a lot to gain not just in terms of improvements to mood but also in enhanced physical health outcomes.”
Further, the lead author told media sources,
“It’s not a cure, but it’s certainly a significant improvement.”
If you wonder how you could start eating the Mediterranean way, we have a few resources to help. We have written about the Mediterranean diet here, here and here. In addition, we offer guidelines on a Mediterranean eating pattern in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.