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Can the Mediterranean Diet Enhance Mental Health?

mediterranean diet

It is a fact that the majority of us are not financially endowed enough to spend our lives living on a private Greek island somewhere in the Mediterranean, but that’s no excuse not to follow the Mediterranean diet and lead a healthy happy life. It’s also a fact that our behavior is heavily influenced by the chemical reactions occurring in our bodies; even happiness is just a burst of dopamine and serotonin hormones acting on our brain’s pleasure center. The Mediterranean diet consisting primarily of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and olive oil and supplemented with occasional dairy, poultry, fish, and red wine assists in producing these “happy” hormones.

This therefore suggests that it not only promotes good health, but also has the capacity to enhance our mental health by making us happier. Top international health organizations like the American Heart Association, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic considers the Mediterranean diet as good for overall heart health, cancer-fighting, diabetes-preventing diet plan.

But can we rely on this information?

The Science Behind the Mediterranean Diet

A new scientific study have shown how foods from a traditional Mediterranean diet (particularly vegetables, fruit, olive oil, legumes, and nuts) have a positive effect towards a person’s overall mood compared to the standard modern Western diet that leans more on junk food, soda, and sweets. The hummus is the proof that this diet works! The results from the experiments showed that test subjects who are more fresh fruits and veggies, olive oil, nuts, and legumes exhibit better moods when compared to those who enjoyed fast food, soda and desserts. One notable observation is that red meat causes women to have mood swings, but it had no effect on men whatsoever.

Can We Trust It?
It’s hard to say because the study itself had an unusual experiment and seemingly unreliable survey. The one thing that’s odd about this research is that the scientists recruited about 96,000 subjects from the Adventist church all around the United States and had them fill out a questionnaire about specific foods they ate in a 1-year period and the frequency of their consumption. The survey ran for 4 years (between 2002 – 2006) and each subject was asked to fill out the questionnaire only once.

During the culmination of the study, the researchers picked out roughly 20,000 participants and were again asked to fill out a Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) survey in 2006. At the end of the survey only 9,255 participants turned in their filled out questionnaires and were tallied in the final output of the study. However, since all the answers were self-assessed with no documented proof, we have a reason to believe that not all of their answers were truthful. However, with approximately 13% of the entries mentioning Mediterranean diet or some specific foods related to it led us to think that some participants were, in fact, telling the truth about what they ate and their diet preference.

The Takeaway
With new studies being published in peer-reviewed journals indicating that the human body has more than just 1 brain – with our digestive system showing signs that it is responsible for our intuitive thinking, it’s no surprise to know that our diet definitely affects how we feel. Some foods included in the Mediterranean diet have healthy fats and scientists think they may be responsible for giving us a good mood. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), or abrineurin, is a protein that, in humans, is encoded by the BDNF gene. When the BNDF levels rises or falls it results in mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression. Research show that when you consume food rich in omega-3 fatty acids (common in the Mediterranean diet) your BNDF levels stabilizes.

In another study, the researchers experimented on test subjects with diagnosed depression and asked 1 group to follow the Mediterranean diet, while the other group followed other diet programs. The results show that Group A had consistently higher levels of BNDF compared to Group B. New research also suggests that fresh fruits, vegetables, and plenty of greens are also good for mental health. Polyphenols which are a large family of naturally occurring organic compounds and are commonly found in plants have been found to affect brain cognition positively. There was a survey that ran for almost 10 years discovered that greater fruit and vegetable intake resulted in lower risk of developing mood swings (e.g. depression, distress, and anxiety).

Of course, this new study is inconclusive; however, the fact remains that a plant-heavy diet which is what the Mediterranean diet is all about is proven time and again good for you. So you might want to turn over a new leaf and change the way you eat and instead, munch on delicious almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts as well as occasionally eat fruit desserts and vegetables.

What Does the Mediterranean Diet Mean?

It was the Greeks and the Romans who developed the idea of “diet” and coincidentally, they also co-founded the civilization of mankind from which all modern civilizations today still have the basic foundations of the Greco-Roman political and societal structures. It’s also worth noting that their culinary traditions became known today as the Mediterranean diet.

The ancient Greeks understood the concept of “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” and learned to adopt it to their daily lives. The way they view medicine also brought both physical and mental wellbeing into one place and interpreted it as a unified means to achieving excellent health. Hippocrates was probably the most famous and important medical figure in ancient Greece, we know today as “the father of medicine.” After conquering the Greeks, the Romans quickly assimilated the Greek culture into their own and this includes most of the ideas of Hippocrates about medicine as well as health and wellbeing. A remnant from this period is the word “diet.” The Greek word diata (δίαιτα) which means “way of living” describes how every individual expresses their life (or at least how they should live).

The Latin word, “diaeta,” means “manner of living” (Romans use Latin as their national language). It’s almost surprising to find out that both words mean the same in their respective languages. They essentially describe how people go about their daily activities and how it can relate to their overall health and wellbeing. It may well be also detrimental to their survival and longevity as we know it. These activities may include but not limited to occupational endeavors, participation in political and social life, leisure time, physical activity, nutrition, and productive time, which all feed our need for material and intellectual hunger.

The Mediterranean diet is all that encompasses our daily activities and the food we eat (as mentioned above and it is actually better described as the “Mediterranean Lifestyle.” Yes, because it’s not just food but one’s overall lifestyle. It is unfortunate that the media and weight-loss industry has painted an obscene picture about diet that people will automatically think it means undertaking a special form of nutrition that aims to regulate food intake by eating special kinds of food or a reduced amount of it in order to improve their physical condition and reduce obesity. But they have clearly misunderstood this concept and if the ancient Greeks and the Romans were here today and learned about this, they would laugh in our faces for distorting their views about diet. Following the Mediterranean diet has nothing to do neither with how many calories of carbohydrates you eat nor about losing weight and yet those who adhere to it have the most proportionate body figures and live the longest. Oh! And did we forget to mention? They are the happiest and most satisfied people in Europe living frugal lives in the simplest manner possible.

The Mediterranean diet is currently known as the best and healthiest diet in the world with a 97% longevity rate. In reality, it is actually a generic term for Greek, Italian, Spanish and French dishes. It reflects the traditional healthy living and eating habits of people from nations located around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea and emphasizes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seed as well as olive which is a form of unsaturated fat. There is more to the Mediterranean diet than just a collection of various meals prepared from natural ingredients that are loaded with nutrients. It is also not about the way of life of a certain people or ethnic group in the Mediterranean, but rather the summation of the entire history of the Mediterranean people expressed in a simple plate of delectable food. It is a mixture and amalgamation of cultural influences that were borrowed and assimilated into new civilizations that span several centuries.

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