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A healthy mind, the Mediterranean way

Remember the saying “you are what you eat?”. It’s becoming clearer that the food we eat, affects our wellbeing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) state “that an unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity are the leading global risks to good health”. To assist in reaching optimal health, it is important to look after our bodies and eat a well-balanced and considered diet. Good nutrition is linked to better mental health outcomes as opposed to poor nutrition which is linked to greater risk of depression and anxiety. Food affects our brain through multiple pathways such as our immune system (inflammation), alters stress hormones, physical changes to the brain (brain plasticity) and gut microbiota.

A recommended diet for good mental health includes wholefoods, plant foods (fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes) and healthy fats from nuts, fish, olives and seeds and limits processed foods. A diet high in processed foods, saturated fat and sugar, also known as a pro-inflammatory diet is linked to depression and physical symptoms such as obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, metabolic syndrome, cancer in adults, wheezing in adolescents. Scientists have suggested that poor diet can lead to several diseases including heart disease, stroke, obesity, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, gall bladder disease and osteoporosis. Not only is a poor diet linked to mental illness such as depression but it has also been linked to poor mental health outcomes in young people including poor concentration and learning, hyperactivity/ aggression, reduce immune system function and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Of course, there are other factors to consider in relation to wellbeing such as stress levels, exercise and sleep, however, a change in diet might help protect from our mental health.

Determining the factors that cause good mental health is complex. Robust and high quality studies using random controlled trials (RCTs) and assessment of changes in biomarkers are limited making it difficult to understand the specific mechanisms leading diet to good mental health. However, diet is important in mental health as highlighted by the inclusion of nutrition as a factor in the prevention and treatment of mood disorders in Australian and New Zealand’s Clinical Practice Guidelines. Further research to assist in identifying which nutrients/ foods will assist in treatment of mental health issues.

Unfortunately, not all of us are able to access fresh food which has been shown to impact on our development. If you have access to fresh food, you may want to try the Mediterranean diet. When compared to other diets, the Mediterranean was ranked as the best diet in the US according to a panel of nutrition and health specialists. Unlike other diets, there is no prescription as to how much to eat or the combination of foods but rather guidelines, enabling you to personalise your approach. The Mediterranean Food Pyramid provides a great overview of the diet, making it easy to follow.

The Mediterranean diet is low in fat and consists mainly of fibers, polyphenols and unsaturated fatty acids which promote gut microbiota and metabolise foods into anti-inflammatory metabolites. Recent research has identified a microbiota-gut-brain axis demonstrating a link between the types of good and bad bacteria in the gut and how they relate to cognitive function and mental health. And we cannot discount that there is a bidirectional nature of mental health issues such as stress and anxiety on the gut and our physical health.

Interestingly, the pyramid includes ‘enjoying meals with others’ promoting the fact that Europeans share their meals. People that eat socially are likely to feel better about themselves as it encourages laughter, drinking of alcohol and story-telling. This would likely contribute to a person’s overall wellbeing, having additional health benefits and thus shows the interconnectedness of factors of wellbeing. Recently, I hosted a get together for my cousins. We spent so much time together as children but unfortunately, as we’ve gotten older life has gotten too busy to spend time together. Our get together was fantastic and we all took away so many positive emotions from sitting around my twelve-seat table together, eating and laughing. I was so glad we were together and being from Italian heritage, I felt an increase in wellbeing from one dinner together and will try and make it a regular occurrence! I think this is an exciting area of research and I’m excited to hear of future research relating to meal sharing.

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