There are not many studies currently available on the Mediterranean diet and its effects on mental health; however, there is some evidence which shows that the nutrients gained from this diet, such as antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, fibre and B-vitamins positively effect mood and brain function.
What is missing from many studies is the impact that the Mediterranean lifestyle also has on mental health, which includes diet, lifestyle, social and cultural aspects. Although diet does play a part in treating mental illness, it is not the only aspect which should be considered.
What a person eats directly affects functioning of the brain, and as a result, a person’s mood. The brain can only function at it optimal levels when a good diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals is consumed. A poor diet that is high in refined food has been shown in multiple studies to affect brain function and increase symptoms of disorders such as depression.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with reducing the risks of many chronic diseases, however there is currently limited research on the affects it has on mental health. Many components of the Mediterranean diet encourage healthy brain function such as omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants and B vitamins. As well as this, the Mediterranean diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, polyunsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants which have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health.
How Diet Affects Mood
The gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerve cells, making it more than just a place to digest food, but also a mood regulator. Around 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. The production of serotonin and the functioning of the neurons in the gastrointestinal tract are highly influenced by the intestinal microbiome which are directly affected by diet.
Studies have shown that traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, can lower the risk of depression by 25% to 35% when compared to a Western diet. This is due to the abundance of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood in traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet, as well as the limited amounts of red meat and dairy consumed.
Recently more evidence has shown that there is a link between diet and mental health. Studies have shown that consuming a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts, legumes and fish can provide protection against depressive symptoms. However, a diet high in sugar and processed foods is seen to have a negative impact on mental health, particularly depression.
The Mediterranean diet provides an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and fish. These foods are rich in antioxidants, fibre and many other nutrients that are positively associated with mental health. The Mediterranean diet provides a much higher proportion of omega 3 fatty acids compare to the high consumption of omega 6 fatty acids seen in a typical Western diet. Research has shown the importance of omega 3 fatty acid in supporting good mental health.
The key concepts of the Mediterranean diet and its effect on mental health are due to the diet being rich in a variety of nutrients which are associated with positive mental health effects. The Mediterranean diet is rich in antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, and B vitamins which are shown to positively affect mental health and brain function.
The Mediterranean Lifestyle
The existing theories indicate that the Mediterranean diet and its effects on mental health isn’t just about what food is consumed. It’s also about the lifestyle. The Mediterranean lifestyle is a holistic approach to supporting mental health. Although the diet provides a rich source of nutrients which are shown to positively affect mental health and brain function, the Mediterranean lifestyle also plays an important role. This include the social aspects and physical activity.
The benefits of a meal go far beyond the nutritional aspects in the Mediterranean culture. The social benefits of leisure time, cooking, sharing, and eating together in positive company support good mental health which are all depicted in the Mediterranean diet pyramid as essential aspects. Another important component of the Mediterranean lifestyle is leisure time which provides a social aspect beneficial for mental health.
More studies need to be done which include a whole lifestyle approach. A lack of social connectiveness can contribute to poor mental health including depression. However positive social connections can reduce the risk of poor mental health.
The Mediterranean lifestyle has a very important social aspect which supports overall wellness. The Mediterranean diet pyramid provides a holistic representation of a healthy lifestyle which benefits mental health including not only diet but also the cultural, social and physical aspects of good health. Looking at a single aspect such as diet does provide some benefits, however taking a holistic approach provides more long term positive effects for mental health as well as overall wellbeing.
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There is a common misconception that eating healthy costs more. Many people would like to consume a healthy diet, but believe that they can’t afford to. With takeaway providing full meals for very little money, it can appear cheaper when compared to purchasing whole foods and preparing a meal from scratch. Supermarkets also create the impression that packaged food costs less than their fresh alternatives, however this isn’t the case.
Packaged and junk foods are marketed differently to fresh foods. The majority of the time fresh foods are priced according to weight (price per kg), however packaged foods are priced per serve or for larger packets, per gram. This makes it difficult to compare and decide which one will give you more value for your money.
Advertising is another way the junk food industry can mislead you. Something we don’t see advertised on TV is that you can get a bag of carrots for as little as $1, which will last for several meals. Yet what we do see is processed, packaged and takeaway meals often priced under $10, and sometimes under $5. This appears cheap for a full meal, but it’s only one meal; and when compared to cooking from scratch, it's going to end up costing more.
Tips to eat healthy and save money
Studies have shown that households spend more on unhealthy diets compared to what it would cost to eat healthy. Research has found that an unhealthy diet costs householders up to 34% more.
It often appears that unhealthy foods are cheaper, and when comparing individual items, this may be the case. However, when you look at the total diet and meals over time, a healthy diet can be a lot more affordable.
There's a lot of conflicting information about organic and non-organic fresh produce. Some people believe that organic is healthier, while others don't believe there's any difference. Some people claim that organic fruit and vegetables are higher in nutrients as well as being free from chemicals, yet others will say both contain the same amount of nutrients.
While most people will agree that organic fresh produce is free from harmful chemicals (which is why many people choose organic), being higher in nutrients is a little more complicated. Some studies indicate that organic fresh produce is higher in nutrients because other methods use chemicals which depletes the soil of important vitamins and minerals. As a result the fruits and vegetables grown in this soil are lacking in nutrients.
There are also claims that the produce absorbs some of the chemicals used in the soil which can't be washed off. Whether this is correct or not, there are other reasons organic fresh produce can contain more nutrients.
Often buying organic means buying locally grown seasonal food. When you buy organic fresh produce it is usually from local farms. This mean less travel time, and often it is fresher as it has been harvested that day, or at least within the past few days.
Fresher mean more nutrients. Supermarket fruits and vegetables have been sourced from various places, local, interstate and international. This means they can be quite old. The minute fresh produce is harvested it starts degrading and nutrients deplete. By the time it gets to the supermarket it has lost a massive amount of goodness.
To add to that, supermarkets will store their fresh produce at cold temperatures for extended periods of time which will deplete the nutrients even more. It could be weeks between the time of harvest and when you purchase the product. This time is essential to the freshness of your produce.
To add to this there are rumours that supermarkets spray their fresh produce with chemicals to make them last longer. Have you ever wondered why supermarket fruits and vegetables will keep for much longer than locally sourced produce?
Many people would like to buy organic, but affording it is another thing; it is more expensive. However the next best step would be to find a good local farmers market and buy seasonal produce which has recently been harvested, organic or not. This will ensure the highest possible nutrient content and you will be supporting your local farmers.
I find buying a mixture of organic and non-organic produce is the best way to go. You can choose to purchase organic varieties of produce which typically have higher amounts of pesticides when grown in conventional form. This usually includes anything which grows from a flower.
Usually fruits and vegetable with thicker skins absorb less chemicals such as pineapples and avocados. Tomatoes, grapes and berries often contain high amounts of pesticides, so buying these as organic where possible is a good idea.
Lastly, a good fruit and vegetable wash can help to wash off the pesticides when you can't buy organic produce. I love Envirocare Enviroclean Fruit and Veg Wash.
I'm a freelance writer currently writing for an awesome marketing company in Perth. I have a Bachelor of Science in nutrition and human biology, and a Graduate Diploma in Human Nutrition, which both contribute to my writing.