News: Mediterranean Diet Linked to Lower Risk of Depression—Plus 8 Other Reasons to Try It
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News: Mediterranean Diet Linked to Lower Risk of Depression—Plus 8 Other Reasons to Try It

"Dieting" doesn't always mean deprivation. This eating plan is simple, nonrestrictive and benefits your whole body.

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By Taylor Lupo

The Mediterranean diet has been receiving some serious attention in recent years, and for good reason. This dietary pattern includes the fundamentals of healthy eating, like fresh produce, lean meats and whole grains. Plus, a dose of healthy fats like olive oil.

In 2018, the Mediterranean diet landed at the top of U.S. News and World Report's list of outstanding diets. There are loads of factors that earned this eating pattern its number one ranking, including simplicity and heart health benefits.

"When compared to a low-fat diet, it has a moderate impact on weight loss, but I think there are more health benefits people can reap, like lower blood pressure and reduced risk for heart disease and diabetes," says Lauren Zimmerman, RD, a registered dietitian with Summerville Medical Center in Summerville, South Carolina.

A wealth of research backs this up, too. Read on to learn about the serious advantages to adopting a Mediterranean-style diet.

The eating plan

2 / 11 The eating plan

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. According to the USDA, foods high in saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium are best left off your plate.

Proponents of the Mediterranean diet adhere to these principles, as well. This style of eating is plant-heavy, and mainstays include plenty of produce, beans, peas, nuts and other protein-rich legumes as well as wholesome cooking oils, like olive and canola. Followers of this eating plan use herbs and spices as much as possible, thus reducing the amount of salt they sprinkle into dishes.

"There are a lot of plant-based foods," Zimmerman says. “It's very low in saturated fat and pretty low in animal products, and encourages low-to-moderate intake of dairy."

Red meats should be eaten sparingly—just a few times each month—and fish should be the protein of choice once or twice each week.

Consider these easy ways to introduce Mediterranean-style cooking into your kitchen:

  • Make plant proteins, like lentils or quinoa, the stars of your dish
  • Sauté your veggies in olive oil, rather than butter
  • Scale back your dairy consumption, and opt for low-fat milk or yogurt
  • Swap your steak dinner for a freshly-grilled filet of salmon, tuna or mackerel
It may lower your risk of developing depression

3 / 11 It may lower your risk of developing depression

Depression affects one in six U.S. adults at some point in their lives—and about 16 million Americans a year. 

The cause of the condition is unknown, but some factors can increase your risk. A family history, a traumatic event and medical problems or medications can up your likelihood for developing depression. Although we can't always alter our predisposition, new research suggests a link between diet and depression risk.    

Healthy, anti-inflammatory eating patterns—particularly ones that resemble a Mediterranean diet—are linked to a lower risk of depression, according to a September 2018 systematic review published in Molecular Psychiatry. The review analyzed results from 41 observational studies. Evaluation of four of those studies in particular found that people who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet had a 33 percent lower risk of developing depression compared to those whose eating patterns least matched the Mediterranean diet. 

The study was not without limitations, however, and more research is needed to draw a conclusive link between a Mediterranean-style diet and reduction in depression risk.

It's linked to better sleep quality in older adults

4 / 11 It's linked to better sleep quality in older adults

The relationship between diet and sleep might be a two-way street. Research shows that getting less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of nightly sleep might increase the amount of fatty foods you crave. On the flip side: A Mediterranean-style diet has been linked to better sleep quality.

A 2018 study published in Geriatrics & Gerontology International suggests a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans and healthy fats—like the Mediterranean diet—is linked to better sleep quality. The study looked at 1,639 adults over the age of 65.

In this study, Greek volunteers completed questionnaires detailing their diet and quality and duration of sleep over a four-week period. Mediterranean eaters up to age 75 reported better sleep quality compared to those who didn’t follow the diet as closely. One caveat: Even strictly following this eating plan wasn't linked to longer periods of sleep, according to the study.

If you struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep, try eating a Mediterranean-style diet. It might not help, but it can’t hurt. You could also adopt some sleep hygiene tactics like:

  • Keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet
  • Going to bed at the same time each night
  • Skipping large meals, alcohol and caffeine before bed

If you wake up tired or get drowsy during the day, try tracking your ZZZs using a free app like Sharecare, which can help you pinpoint the problem and snooze better. The Sharecare app, available for iOS and Android, lets you monitor your sleep in two ways: it will track your sleep automatically or you can manually log your hours of rest. This tool can also help you create a diet and schedule that works best for you.

It's super simple

5 / 11 It's super simple

According to U.S. News and World Report, of all 40 diets on the 2018 list, the Mediterranean diet was the easiest to follow.

The Mediterranean style of eating is relatively straightforward—fill your plate with the nutrients your body needs, and there will be no room left for unhealthy junk. This simplicity, coupled with the plan's flexibility, make the Mediterranean diet easy to stick to.

"I think it's an easy diet to follow because I don't see it as too restrictive," Zimmerman says. "As long as people can find ways to incorporate a lot of plant foods—like fruits, vegetables and beans—into their diet, they can eat plentifully without really restricting anything."

It helps control diabetes

6 / 11 It helps control diabetes

Obesity, which is linked to an unhealthy diet, can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which the body either doesn't produce enough insulin (the hormone responsible for regulating blood glucose) or doesn't respond to it well. This leads to high blood sugar. When blood sugar levels are too high, your heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves can suffer.

In most cases, diabetes can be managed with a healthy diet, regular exercise, blood sugar monitoring, medication, insulin or a combination of these interventions. Certain eating plans are more effective for diabetes control, and the Mediterranean diet is one of them.

A 2015 systemic review of 13 meta-analyses and randomized control trials of people with or at risk of diabetes suggested that, when compared to low fat diets, a Mediterranean diet can better stabilize blood glucose levels.

Adopting a Mediterranean diet can begin with small changes, like swapping your afternoon bag of chips for crunchy celery sticks and a tablespoon of hummus.

It's linked to lower cancer risk

7 / 11 It's linked to lower cancer risk

A healthful diet may help ward off some cancers. Research from 2017 suggests a Mediterranean-inspired diet is linked to a reduced risk of estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Results from the study—which looked at 62,573 Dutch women between the ages of 55 and 69—suggest that those who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet were 40 percent less likely to develop this form of breast cancer compared to those who didn't follow the diet.

The reason this style of eating may be effective in minimizing the risk of breast cancer is unclear, though experts have a theory. Over time, inflammation can increase your cancer risk, but certain foods may help counteract the damage. A typical Mediterranean diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods like olive oil, fruits, vegetables, fatty fish and nuts.

It reduces cognitive decline

8 / 11 It reduces cognitive decline

Your brain changes as you age and, in older adults, these changes can include shrinking. A decrease in the brain's size may cause a drop in cognitive function. But the Mediterranean diet may give a whole new meaning to the phrase "brain food."

A 2017 Scottish study published in the journal Neurology suggests a link between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and brain volume. The study ran for three years and included 400 adults between the ages of 73 and 76, all without dementia. Those who stuck with the diet most closely experienced less brain shrinkage than those who didn't adhere as closely.

A second study of 5,907 older adults published later that year suggests a connection between a Mediterranean or MIND-style diet and better cognitive skills, like memory and attention.

To boost your brain health, try swapping your standard lunch sandwich with a spinach salad, topped with chopped walnuts, fresh berries and a serving of grilled chicken.

It boosts heart health

9 / 11 It boosts heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American men and women, claiming 610,000 lives each year. A number of factors, like your weight, age, blood pressure, activity levels and family history contribute to your risk of heart disease, but your diet plays a part, too.

While unhealthy eating habits can hurt your heart, following a Mediterranean diet may help protect your ticker. A 2018 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine linked a Mediterranean diet to a lower risk of cardiovascular events, like stroke and heart attack, among people between the ages of 55 and 80 with a high risk of heart disease. Participants ate one of three diets: a Mediterranean-style diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, the same diet supplemented with mixed nuts or a low-fat diet.

Zimmerman suggests a diet that limits processed junk and focuses on whole foods can help lower blood pressure levels. "You're not consuming as much sodium and you're eating a lot more potassium, which can really help counteract the effects of sodium on the blood pressure," she says.

Potassium-rich foods include bananas, avocados, Brussels sprouts, spinach and sweet potatoes.

It protects older adults from frailty

10 / 11 It protects older adults from frailty

Frailty is a syndrome common in older people that comprises a number of conditions, including unintentional weight loss, low energy and muscle weakness. Frail adults are also at an increased risk for bone fractures, falls, dementia and a low quality of life.

The good news is that there are some proven ways to slow the degree of physical and mental decline in older adults. A 2018 analysis of 5,789 people in four studies suggests that older adults who follow a Mediterranean diet are less likely to become frail.

Results from one of the studies included in the analysis suggest Mediterranean-style eaters can reduce their risk of frailty. The study followed 560 non-frail adults for two years. At the end of the study, 79 adults had become frail, defined as having three or more of the following criteria: involuntary weight loss, exhaustion, slowness, weakness and low physical activity.

Those seniors who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet had a 68 percent lower risk of becoming frail compared to those who followed the diet the least faithfully. The Mediterranean eaters also saw a reduction in risk for slowness, low activity and poor muscle strength.

It's been linked to a lower risk of stroke in women

11 / 11 It's been linked to a lower risk of stroke in women

A September 2018 study published in Stroke, an American Heart Association (AHA) journal, linked a Mediterranean-style diet to a reduction in stroke risk in women over 40.

Researchers tracked the eating patterns of 23,232 European men and women between the ages of 40 and 77 over a 17-year period. Participants provided a food log in which they recorded everything they had eaten and drank over the course of a week. Overall, those who followed a Mediterranean-style diet had a 17 percent lower risk of stroke.

Women who adhered most closely to this eating style had on average a 22 percent lower risk of stroke onset. (The reduction in stroke risk among men was just 6 percent, which researchers believe may have been due to chance.) Among participants with an already high risk for cardiovascular disease, this eating plan was linked to a 20 percent lower likelihood of stroke in women and 13 percent lower risk of stroke overall.

Although the study suggests a Mediterranean-style diet is less successful in preventing stroke in men, the AHA recommends most people focus on eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and a moderate amount of fat from nuts and seeds. The AHA dietary recommendations are similar to a Mediterranean-style diet. The big difference? The latter often delivers more fat, though it's mostly the healthy kind.