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Study links Mediterranean diet to reduced risk of depression

Here in Minnesota, we’re facing yet another day of gray clouds and drizzling rain. Can it get any gloomier outside?

Here in Minnesota, we’re facing yet another day of gray clouds and drizzling rain. Can it get any gloomier outside? (Well, I guess it can, if the Twins lose today.)

With this mood-sinking weather pattern on my mind, I was drawn to a Spanish study published in the October issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. It suggests that people who follow the traditional Mediterranean diet may be less likely to develop depression.

A reminder: The Mediterranean diet is the one that includes lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish and olive oil; moderate amounts of dairy products and alcohol; and very little meat.

It’s a diet that seems to have only an upside. Following it has also been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and certain cancers.

The study’s details
For this current study, researchers asked 10,000 healthy, non-depressed Spanish adults to fill out a questionnaire about the foods they regularly ate. The researchers then calculated how closely each respondent adhered to the Mediterranean diet. (Yes, even in the Mediterranean, not everybody eats that region’s traditional foods.)

After about four-and-a-half years, 480 new cases of depression were diagnosed (156 in men, 324 in women) among the study’s participants.

Those who had reported most closely adhering to the Mediterranean diet were more than 30 percent less likely to develop depression than those who strayed the farthest from the diet.

The association was still there even when the researchers adjusted for such things as marital status, number of children, and healthy lifestyle habits — all factors that can affect the risk of depression.

What’s going on?
As the study’s authors pointed out, the specific biological mechanisms by which the Mediterranean diet may help stave off clinical depression are unknown. It could be, they noted, that certain components of the diet may be promoting such possible depression-preventing actions as fighting inflammation, improving the function of blood vessels, and repairing oxygen-related cell damage.

Or, said the researchers, the diet may be contributing some “synergistic combination” of factors that lower the risk.

The study, of course, has several limitations that may have affected its results. Most notably, participants in the study self-reported what foods they ate. Such self-reporting is often unreliable.

Furthermore, this study showed only an association, not a cause-and-effect, between the Mediterranean diet and a reduced risk of depression. That means, of course, that people who are depressed should not try to treat their symptoms by simply switching to this way of eating. Depression is a serious illness that needs ongoing professional medical care.

Still, if this rain continues (and if, heaven forbid, the Twins lose today), you might want to cook up some pasta primavera this evening. Serve it with a slice of whole-grain bread and, perhaps, a generous glass of soothing there’s-always-next-season red wine.