Just as the rich nutrition in the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) enhances physical health, so it boosts mental health. A small but striking Australian study links it to alleviating depression.

The research published in BMC Medicine was the first randomized controlled trial to investigate whether or not an improvement in diet can be an effective treatment for major depressive episodes.

Why was the diet so beneficial? “Two big factors that contribute to the depression-fighting properties involve two of its more famous nutrients: omega-3 fatty acids and fiber,” naturopathic physician Vickie Modica of Seattle, Washington told Olive Oil Times.

“Both of these nutrients have been the subject of recent research into the mind-body link between diet and depression. Omega-3 fatty acids, known to have an anti-inflammatory effect and thought to have a healthful impact on the nervous system, improve the symptoms of depression in multiple studies. Other research shows that diets high in fiber increase the diversity of good gut microbiota, which is believed to have a positive influence on mood, including depression,” Modica said.

In the current study, 67 patients suffering from a major depressive episode were randomly assigned to attend either seven sessions with a clinical dietician who extolled the value of the MedDiet or seven sessions of social support. All the participants had unhealthy diets at the beginning of the intervention.

Individuals in the dietary counseling group were asked to improve their eating habits by consuming fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and olive oil, which are foods that comprise the MedDiet. They were required to write what they ate in food diaries, and the recorded data revealed the quality of their food intake increased significantly.

Participants in the social support group were led in the discussion of neutral topics of interest. On occasion, they played board games or cards, activities chosen to keep them engaged and positive.

At the end of 12 weeks, the contrast between the two groups was remarkable. Nearly one-third of the counseling group experienced remission from their depression, compared to only 8 percent of the social support group. Moreover, the improvements weren’t dependent upon exercise or weight loss.

“This study should be thought of as preliminary research and hopefully a catalyst for many more studies proving a mind-body connection,” Modica noted. “That said, I think its import is multifaceted, having a bearing on the following issues:

  • It highlights the importance of diet on quality of life, rather than just longevity and weight control.
  • The research implies that what you don’t put in your body is as important as what you do put in it. People eating a healthy Mediterranean diet generally eat less processed food. Future studies may show that processed foods may be just as much the culprit here as healthy foods are the remedy.
  • We need solutions for mental health conditions that aren’t pharmaceutical because medications aren’t effective for everyone. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of patients with major depression have only a partial response to available pharmacological and psychotherapeutic interventions.
  • The 12-week duration of the study shows how quickly healthful changes to the diet can have a perceivable impact on health.

Modica explained that the concept of a nutritious diet promoting mental health is an integral part of the naturopathic philosophy.

“If I can speak for my profession, we consider it a matter of course that diet affects mood. For me, this study confirms the clinical and empirical experiences I have seen through my schooling and career: a whole foods diet low or absent in processed food has a positive impact on depression symptoms,” she said.

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