June 17, 2024

Does adhering to the Mediterranean diet affect mental health?

In a recent study published in the Nutrients Journal, the researchers assessed the relationship between a healthy diet and maintaining mental health among Spanish nursing students.

Multivariate regression models showed that poor adherence to the Mediterranean diet correlated with increased symptoms of depression among these students, supporting diet as a key player in mental health.

Study: Association between Depressive Symptoms and Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet in Nursing Students. Image Credit: FoxysForestManufacture/Shutterstock.com

Mediterranean diet and mental health

The Mediterranean diet (MD) is characterized by low saturated fats and high vegetable oils. This diet was popular in Italy and Greece during the 1960s and is still popular with associations, including Oldway’s Preservation Trust and the Diet Foundation.

Previous research has shown that MD can contribute to a reduced risk of cancer and diabetes and improved cardiovascular health.

Modern cultural transitions, including urbanization, globalization of food production, and Western-style consumerism, are threatening the MD, which is seeing an overall decline in adherence to this ‘gold standard’ in the diet.

Such trends are often associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases, such as depression and anxiety.

Mental health conditions are global medical and social concerns, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to formally define positive mental health – “a state of emotional and psychological well-being in which a person recognizes his or her potential, adapts to stress natural life, leads to productive and supportive work and meets the demands of everyday life.”

Despite increased awareness through the media and clinical campaigns, depressive illness increased by 53.4% ​​between 1990 and 2013 and substance abuse increased by 45%.

Research has identified young adults aged 17 to 24 at increased risk of mental health conditions, with between 9% and 55% of health science students living with some form of anxiety or depression worldwide.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not worsen the situation, and the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (NSI) reported 4,003 suicides in 2020, much higher than in the pre-pandemic years. These statistics are a cause for alarm and promote preventive measures against this critical condition.

Some scientists have suggested that diet can improve a person’s mood and mental health. Although the cardiovascular and anti-cancer benefits of MD have been previously researched, the association between MD and mental health has never been evaluated.

About the study

In the current study, researchers aimed to investigate how MD adherence is related to mental health prevalence and potential sociodemographic contributors to their observed patterns.

The study was conducted on 289 randomly selected nursing students from the University of Valencia (Spain) between October 2022 and March 2023.

The sample cohort comprised 32.1% of the 901 students enrolled at the time, with individuals under the age of 17 and those who refused to participate excluded from the study group. Participants were informed of the objectives of the study and provided with a self-administered online survey.

The survey addressed sociodemographic (gender, age, employment status, marital status) and health (height, weight, clinical reports, and self-perceived health). [SPH]) variables.

The questionnaire collected data on the students’ lifestyles, including smoking, psychotropic drugs, alcohol and drinks. Alcohol dependence was separately assessed using the Brief Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT-C), which accurately identifies abusers and individuals at risk of developing dependence in the future.

Finally, participants were asked to provide their academic data (courses, current grade point average [GPA]) to assess academic performance variables.

Researchers separately recorded DM adherence using the Mediterranean Diet Adherence Screener (MEDAS-14) and mental health status using the Goldberg Anxiety and Depression Scale (GADS).

The above data were statistically analyzed using a multiple logistic regression model with DM adherence classified as the independent variable, and mental health, body mass index (BMI), and smoking as the dependent variables.

Results of the study

Of the 289 participants in the study, 86.5% were women aged between 17 and 30 (20.6 years on average). Health data showed that 82.4% had no chronic illnesses, and 74% were in the normal BMI range. Smokers comprised 8% of the study cohort, and only 4% (13 individuals) reported daily consumption of psychotropic drugs.

However, 58.1% and 61.9% of participants reported daily alcohol and beverage consumption, respectively.

Statistical analyzes showed that only 36.5% of students showed strict adherence to the MD, with no correlation between MD adherence and gender, BMI, or chronic illness status. MD adherence increased with age, but no association was observed between drug/alcohol use and adherence.

However, smokers were found to have significantly lower levels of MD adherence compared to non-smoking cohort members.

GADS results show that 45.3% and 46.4% of participants showed symptoms of anxiety and depression, respectively, well above the global average. Women were significantly more likely to show mental health symptoms than men, and slightly higher probabilities were observed among the elderly.

Adherence to the MD was significantly associated with mood – participants who showed symptoms of depression had significantly lower adherence scores than those who did not suffer from mental health issues. Anxiety showed a similar trend, with lack of MD adherence strongly predicting anxiety among participants.

“…students who scored higher on the Goldberg total scale and the depression subscale showed significantly lower scores on the MD adherence questionnaire.”

Conclusions

In this study, researchers found a strong correlation between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and mental health concerns among Spanish nursing students. Participants who underwent MD had significantly lower anxiety and depression scores than those who did not.

Although no association was found between gender, health, or drug/alcohol consumption, participants who smoked were significantly less likely to adhere to the MD than nonsmokers.

“The protective effect of MD against depression may be due to an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids and other natural unsaturated fatty acids, together with antioxidants from olive oil and nuts, flavonoids and other phytochemicals from other fruits and plants . foods, and large amounts of natural folates and other B vitamins.”

This research establishes the relationship between diet and mental health. It incorporates the case for a healthy diet as a preventative measure against anxiety and depression, particularly for at-risk youth.

The results support universities including foods low in saturated fat and high in vegetable oil in their hostels and canteens as an additional means of improving the overall health and well-being of students.

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