Mediterranean Diet May Help Beat Depression in Young Men

man eating salad with wine

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Key Takeaways

  • Following the Mediterranean diet has been linked to lowered risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • A new study suggests that the diet can also lessen symptoms of depression in young men.
  • Focusing on small changes to your daily eating plan can make switching to the Mediterranean diet a longer-lasting, mentally beneficial habit.

Fad diets come and go, but some eating plans stay relevant in the long run thanks to their proven benefits. The Mediterranean diet is one of them. In the 1950s, it was first noted that heart disease wasn't nearly as common in Mediterranean countries as it was in the US. This fact was linked to eating habits, and the diet continues to be one of the most consistently recommended diets by health professionals.

Renowned for its heart-healthy properties, the Mediterranean diet is rich in plant-based foods while limiting red meat and sweets. While its physical health benefits are clear, new research suggests there may be mental health benefits, as well. A recent study found that young men experienced lessened symptoms of depression when following the Mediterranean diet.

The Research

The Mediterranean diet consists of foods commonly eaten in countries along the Mediterranean Sea, like Greece and Italy. It's a diet built on plant-based foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices—while seafood, poultry and dairy are eaten in moderation. The main source of added fat is olive oil, and red meat and sweets are eaten only occasionally.

Uma Naidoo, MD

Eating plenty of different veggies and berries provides the body with plenty of gut-nourishing, inflammation-reducing fiber, alongside a host of nutrients that optimize brain health.

— Uma Naidoo, MD

While its heart-healthy proponents have long been known, the Mediterranean diet's mental health benefits are also becoming clear. Uma Naidoo, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist and author of "This is Your Brain on Food," notes that colorful plant foods and healthy fats of the Mediterranean diet are also to key components of a brain-healthy diet.

"Eating plenty of different veggies and berries provides the body with plenty of gut-nourishing, inflammation-reducing fiber, alongside a host of essential macro, micro, and phytonutrients that optimize brain health," Naidoo says. "Similarly, healthy fats like those found in extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and wild-caught seafood act as a powerful anti-inflammatory compound in the brain to help it resist the damaging effects of exposure to toxins, aging, and free radicals, and therefore maintain healthy tissue."

Recent research has provided evidence for these brain-boosting claims: A new study conducted in Australia found that following this eating plan lessened symptoms of depression in young men.

In the 12-week randomized trial, 72 male participants aged 18-25 were divided into two groups—one group followed the Mediterranean diet while the other underwent counseling and acted as the control group. The findings, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, revealed that upon evaluation, the group that adhered to the Mediterranean diet showed significant improvement in depressive symptoms when compared to the control group.

The study's lead researcher Jessica Bayes, a PhD candidate at University of Technology Sydney, is excited by the potential of nutritional psychology as an emerging field, as mental health has always been a topic close to her heart.

"Something as simple as what we eat could have a powerful effect on our mental health, and represents something we all have the power to work on and improve," she says. "Even if your depressive symptoms are very severe, choosing to follow a Mediterranean diet could make a large difference to your mental health, energy, sleep and concentration."

Adjusting Your Diet

Bayes recognizes that making dietary changes can feel overwhelming, so she suggests focusing on one minor change at a time. Adding an extra vegetable to your dinner recipe or buying whole-grain bread at the grocery store can start a positive chain reaction.

"All these small changes will add up over time," Bayes says. "Once you start to notice the benefits to your mental health, it's easier to stay committed."

Jessica Bayes, Study author

Something as simple as what we eat could have a powerful effect on our mental health, and represents something we all have the power to work on and improve.

— Jessica Bayes, Study author

Another easy switch that Naidoo recommends is opting for extra-virgin or expeller-pressed olive, avocado or coconut oil rather than processed vegetable or seed oils.

"Lean into legumes," Naidoo says. "I’d suggest increasing the color and variety of vegetables and berries in one’s meals, as this also increases the biodiversity of the gut microbes which are key to our mental health."

Attempting to overhaul your everyday diet all at once isn't sustainable for everyone. Starting with small steps and incorporating more elements of the Mediterranean diet over time increases your chance of sticking with this new eating plan and reaping its mental health benefits.

What This Means For You

Because the Mediterranean diet has been linked to both physical and mental health benefits, including more plant-based foods and healthy fats in daily meals can be a major step toward a healthier mind and body.

2 Sources
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  1. Mayo Clinic. Mediterranean diet for heart health.

  2. Bayes J, Schloss J, Sibbritt D. The effect of a Mediterranean diet on the symptoms of depression in young males (the “AMMEND” study): A Randomized Control TrialAm J Clin Nutr. 2022:nqac106 doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqac106