Over the past few years, the Mediterranean diet has quickly become the diet du jour. Research shows this way of eating provides a number of positive health impacts, including improving a person’s gut microbiome, reducing strokeTrusted Source risks, and helping prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s diseaseTrusted Source.
Scientists have also linked the Mediterranean diet to lowering depression risksTrusted Source.
Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney have now found evidence that a Mediterranean diet can also help improve symptoms in young men living with depression.
The study was recently published in the American Journal of Clinical NutritionTrusted Source.
What is depression?
DepressionTrusted Source is a mood disorder causing a person to have negative thoughts, feelings, and actions. People with depression are persistently sad, resulting in a general lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed. They may also experience:
Lack of appetite
Anger and irritability
Agitation and/or restlessness
Difficulty thinking or concentrating
A feeling of guilt or worthlessness
Very slow speaking and/or body movements
Unexplained body pains
Thoughts of death and/or suicide
Researchers estimate that depression affects 3.8 percent of the world’s populationTrusted Source. And suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for young adults aged 15 to 29 years old.
Researchers estimate that depression affects 5%Trusted Source of the world’s adult population, with women almost twice as likely to be affected as men. Whilst women and men may display many of the same signs and symptoms of depression, they can also differ.
For instance, one study suggested that men may be more likely than women to manifest depression through feelings of anger or through substance misuse.
Improvement in depression symptoms
According to Jessica Bayes, a doctoral candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, Faculty of Health, and lead author of this study, she and her research team decided to focus on young men ages 18–25 for this study because young men are much less likely to seek help for their mental health.
“We urgently need more effective evidenced-based treatment strategies to help depression that appeal to young men,” she told MNT. “Diet could be a great first step towards recovery.”
Bayes and her team conducted a 12-week randomized control trial with 72 male participants between the ages of 18 and 25 with moderate to severe depression. Participants were randomly selected to either receive dietary support by learning how to eat a Mediterranean diet or befriendingTrusted Source — in which the researcher spoke to the participant about neutral topics, such as movies or hobbies.
At the end of the study, researchers reported that 100% of participants in the Mediterranean diet support group experienced an improvement in their depression symptoms.
In that group, 36% saw a decline in their Beck Depression Inventory Scale (BDI-II), to a score of 0-10 (low or minimal depression). Whilst there was also a decline in the average score in the befriending group, all of the participants’ scores in the befriending group remained at the level of moderate to severe depression by the end of the trial.
A bio-psycho-social model
According to Bayes, while previous observational evidence shows a Mediterranean diet is helpful in preventing depression, this was the first study in young men with clinical depression to test the diet in an experimental trial.
“We were surprised by how quickly the positive effects were seen, and how willing the participants were to continue the diet after the trial had finished,” she explained.
“Nearly all our participants stayed with the program, and many were keen to continue the diet once the study ended, which shows how effective, tolerable, and worthwhile they found the intervention.”
– Jessica Bayes
MNT also spoke with Dr. David A. Merrill, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, who was very excited about the results of this study.
Dr. Merrill said the Mediterranean diet provides a bio-psycho-social model for treating depression. “Men tend to have poor diets in general and tend to work towards having convenient fast foods that are nutritionally poor or sub-optimal,” he explained.
“This sort of nutrition intervention addresses biology — it can improve micronutrient status for individuals, things like […] pro-cognitive, pro-mood supporting elements [and] proteins that are precursors for neurotransmitters like serotonin.”
“It [also tends] to have a social component […] in terms of preparation, food invites collaboration, like a partnership with family members, loved ones, cooks, chefs, which becomes a social boost.”
Additionally, Dr. Merrill said the Mediterranean diet may be an easier lifestyle change for people to adopt compared to other diets, such as the ketogenic diet or intermittent fasting.
“One of the reasons the Mediterranean style diet can be one of the most effective nutrition interventions is that people tend to stick with it at higher rates,” he said.
“People tend to stop doing [limitation diets] once they’re out of a structured trial. It really is true that food needs to be enjoyable, sustaining, and social. Luckily, the Mediterranean diet fits all that and is very nutritious as well.”