The adages are well worn and cliché…’you are what you eat, an apple a day keeps the doctor away’...but now there is strong evidence to suggest that eating healthy foods benefits both the body and mind. The Mediterranean diet has been widely supported as heart healthy but there is strong evidence that this way of eating can improve your mental health, too. A promising research study in Spain, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, revealed a link between lower depression rates and the Mediterranean diet. This study followed 10,000 adults for 4 ½ years and found those who consumed a Mediterranean diet, (rich in foods containing omega 3’s such as fatty fish, olive oil and walnuts), were nearly 50% less likely to develop depression than those who did not. None of the participants had any depressive symptoms at the start of the study, and the data was based on participants self-reporting their dietary intake. (1)
The Mediterranean diet focuses on physical activity and eating plant based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines or tuna are another mainstay as they are laden with healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 lipids are essential for cell membrane growth and my reduce inflammation, increasingly connected to chronic illness. Deficiency in omega 3 levels are also linked to depression and, not surprisingly, depression rates are lowest in countries like Japan and Iceland, where fatty fish is a staple. Additionally, a Canadian study suggested that use of omega 3 supplements eased the symptoms of those diagnosed with depression unaccompanied by an anxiety disorder.(2) Unfortunately, omega 3 rich foods have seen a decline in American households in the past century, and have been substituted with animal fat and processed foods. Many point to this abandoning of a more natural, plant based diet as contributing to the increase in heart disease, obesity, and rising depression rates.
While the Mediterranean diet may help stave off heart disease and depression, other dietary patterns may contribute to depression. Diets rich in "inflammatory" foods have been linked to increased risk of depression in the Nurse's Health Study that followed a population of 43,685. Here is an accessible source of information on depression-causing inflammatory foods.
While it’s clear that eating a well balanced, omega 3 rich diet is part of a healthy lifestyle, and may have a positive impact on mood, it is no panacea for clinical depression. Your physician or a psychiatrist can best assess your mood state and provide a diagnosis and treatment plan. And, as with all mood disorders, customary treatment includes talk therapy, medication and behavior changes. However, incorporating the principals of the Mediterranean diet and omega 3’s can serve as a beneficial supplement to treatment. Note: always consult with your physician before making any dietary changes, or ingesting supplements.
(1) Sanchez-Villegas, A.; Delgado-Rodriguez, M., Alonso, A., Schlatter, J., Lahortiga, F., Serra Majem, L., Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2009). "Association of the Mediterranean Dietary Pattern With the Incidence of Depression: The Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra/University of Navarra Follow-up (SUN) Cohort". Arch Gen Psychiatry 66 (10): 1090–1098.
(5) Inflammatory dietary pattern and risk of depression among women, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Volume 36, February 2014, Pages 46-53