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Mediterranean diet reduces depression, study suggests

October 5, 2009 |  3:39 pm

Jetting to the sunny climes of the Mediterranean couldn't hurt if you feel a bout of depression settling in.

But a new study in the Archives of General Psychiatry finds that if your aim is to minimize your risk of depression in the first place, you might stay right where you are and make your plate look like it's been to the Mediterranean. You should scale back on the meats and dairy fats, eat some nuts, and increase your consumption of fish, vegetables and legumes doused in olive oil.

Oh, and pour yourself a glass of wine. Not half a bottle; one glass, maybe two.

The Mediterranean diet has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. it was only a matter of time before researchers would begin to wonder whether a Mediterranean diet could also reduce the risk of depression -- which, like all of the above diseases, is linked to higher levels of inflammation throughout the body. They found tantalizing suggestions of such a link: Compared with Northern Europe, the countries surrounded by the Mediterranean report lower rates of mental illness and suicide. 

The study linking adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet with reduced depression risk is the first to test that link prospectively. It followed a group of subjects over several years, tracked their eating patterns and recorded how many reported several symptoms or a diagnosis of depression. This one tracked 10,094 graduates of the University of Navarra in Spain for roughly 4 1/2 years and found that the more closely subjects stuck to the principal elements of a Mediterranean diet, the lower their likelihood of developing depression.

So what is it -- the sunshine, the hillside towns that keep even octogenarians walking daily on errands? The tradition of far niente? The wine, the fish, the nuts, the legumes, the olive oil? While acknowledging that lifestyle factors or genetics may contribute to the lowered risk of depression, the researchers focused largely on the dietary components, and sought to single out one or two more powerful than the others in warding off depression.

In the end, they noted, "the role of the overall dietary pattern may be more important than the effect of single components." They even suggested that depression may yield in the face of a "synergistic combination" of polyunsaturated fats from olive oil and nuts, antioxidants from fruits and flavenoids, B vitamins and natural folates from vegetables and wine.

-- Melissa Healy

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