One of the essential characteristics of the world’s five Blue Zones — the regions with the highest concentrations of centenarians — is a healthy diet. The longevity of residents in Ikaria, Greece, for example, has specifically been traced to eating legumes, wild greens, fruit, and small amounts of fish. This diet, otherwise known as the Mediterranean diet, has long-since been linked to healthy hearts and bones. But a new study shows it can also help mental health — turning the blues into Blue Zone material.
For the study, researchers assigned 72 men between 18- and 25-years-old with moderate to severe depression to either maintain their diet or switch to a Mediterranean diet. The diet, which originated from Greece and Spain, replaced high quantities of eggs, chicken, red meat, and fast foods with vegetables, legumes, fish, olive oil, and raw nuts.
After 12 weeks, depression symptoms decreased in all men on the Mediterranean diet, with 36% of the group reporting low or minimal depression at the study’s end. In comparison, none of the participants in the control group reported low or minimal depression after the 12-week study period.
Although depression is relatively common in young men, they are the least likely demographic to seek help. Psychotherapy can be expensive, and young people tend to be more hesitant to start antidepressant medications — in 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautioned against the use of antidepressants among young people because of their increased risk of suicidality as a side effect. And men in general are less likely to seek help for depression because vulnerability is seen as antithetical to masculinity.
Diet is something actionable people with depression can do while they consider or seek other treatments, says study author Jessica Bayes, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia.
“Psychotherapy and antidepressants help a lot of people, so we’re not suggesting people come off their medication or anything like that,” Bayes says. “But lots of young men I was talking to for this study said even through their university they were on a waitlist for three months to get in to have their first appointment.”
The Mediterranean diet has previously been shown to reduce depression symptoms in middle-aged men in a couple of studies, but those trials were mostly comprised of women. But although the current study focused on young men, there’s “no reason why older men can’t reap the benefits as well,” Bayes says.
The Mediterranean diet is thought to reduce depression because it includes a lot of anti-inflammatory foods, and depression bidirectionally causes and is caused by inflammation of the immune system. The diet also impacts the gut-microbiome, which is responsible for making upwards of 90% of the body’s serotonin. Although the relationship is still not fully understood, higher levels of certain gut bacteria such as Morganella have been linked to an increased risk of depression and may cause the disease.
In general, diets don’t tend to stick around forever, especially since men may face more stigma against “healthy eating” than women, the authors wrote. This is why it could be useful as a short-term strategy before men are able to seek other treatment options.
On the other hand, some men do feel that their diet is important to improving their depression and are eager to try modifying their diet for mental health benefits, according to a recent study.
In general, Western diets full of processed foods and refined sugars have been linked to a higher risk of depression, whereas ways of eating similar to the vegetable- and fish-rich Mediterranean diet, like the Japanese diet, have been associated with a reduced depression risk.
Still, these diets aren’t intended to replace other depression treatments, Bayes says. During the trial, 45% of men were seeing a psychologist and 25% were taking antidepressant medications. Most participants exercised at least once or twice a week, which has also been shown to improve mental health symptoms.
“The field of nutritional psychiatry is this very new, exciting field that shows how different foods and dietary patterns can impact our mental health,” Bayes says. “Eating is something we do every day, so it seems like a really achievable thing people can do to support their mental health.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860, the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.