New research has shed light on the Mediterranean diet’s potential in alleviating stress and anxiety.

The new research was led by Dr Evangeline Mantzioris from the University of South Australia and Dr Anthony Villani from the University of Sunshine Coast.

Dr Mantzioris told Neos Kosmos that the research “showed that when older people adhered to a Mediterranean diet, their symptoms of stress and anxiety declined.”

The Mediterranean diet has long been acclaimed for its health benefits, which include a reduction of bowel cancer, heart disease, and dementia risks.

Dr Mantzioris said “a whole lot of things together” in the diet, like olive oil, high fibre, fish, fresh vegetables, and less meat, reveal the added benefit of reduced anxiety and stress.

The Mediterranean diet includes fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and seeds, nuts, legumes, and olive oil.

Fish and seafood should be incorporated into a person’s diet at least twice a week, and dairy and lean proteins can be eaten daily in smaller portions. The Mediterranean diet promotes infrequent consumption of red meats and processed foods.

“It doesn’t mean you need to eat fish all the time; the impact of the whole diet is important,” Dr Mantzioris said.

“I was in Greece last year, and everyone was eating the Cretan dakos salad, (Κρητική σαλάτα ντάκος) a high-fibre rusk in a tomato and salad with herbs and olive oil; it’s perfect,” said Dr Mantzioris.

The observational study looked at the impact of a Mediterranean diet on mental health among almost 300 Australians over 60 years old and found that it reduced the severity of anxiety and stress, independent of age, gender, sleep, and BMI.

Dr Mantzioris and Dr Villani identified that elements of the diet – fruit, nuts, legumes, and a low consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks – reduced anxiety and stress levels.

“We know from studies that highly processed food with too much salt, sugar and trans fats can impair mental health.

“In this study, we showed that when older people adhered to a Mediterranean diet, their symptoms of stress and anxiety declined – and that this occurred regardless of their age, gender, BMI or how much sleep and exercise they were getting,” Dr Mantzioris said.

Dr Mantzioris said virgin olive oil has polyphenols like oleocanthal, which is associated with anti-inflammatory properties.

“Oleocanthal inhibits inflammation; virgin olive oil has important phytonutrients like hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein, which help protect the body from oxidation.
“Oleocanthal gives you that peppery aftertaste from good virgin olive oil,” Dr Mantzioris said.

Dr Mantzioris said, “Thirty or forty years ago, they’d say, ‘oranges have vitamin C’, or ‘milk is important for calcium’; however, that is a reductionist approach”.

“Now we recognise a whole-of-diet approach, a mix of many things.

“The Mediterranean diet also slows down cognitive decline and Sarcopenia, a type of muscle atrophy caused by the aging process, among other things,” said Dr Mantzioris.

Dr Mantzioris and her colleague Dr Villani are looking at the more profound impact of the Mediterranean diet because many of the older generation who arrived in Australia post-war changed their dietary behaviour. Due to more access to meat, dairy, and processed foods, we have lost some of the benefits of a complete Mediterranean diet.

“Globally, we’re facing an unprecedented ageing population, yet despite this longevity, many people continue to struggle with their health and wellbeing,” Dr Mantzioris said.

What of the desire to have a burger? Nothing wrong with that said Dr Mantzioris, as long as it is not processed.

A homemade burger, bifteki, good quality bread, and fresh greens are infinitely better than fast food processed burgers.

Globally, anxiety is the most common mental health disorder, affecting more than 301 million people, and in Australia one in four people will experience anxiety during their lifetime.

“It’s a big tick for the Mediterranean diet – through a relatively easy lifestyle change, people can markedly improve their stress and anxiety levels,” Dr Mantzioris said.