Best diet to boost mood? A study on men and depression reveals the answer

Men are less likely to receive mental health treatment compared to women. This is not because men need less help: It’s increasingly understood that the way mental health is measured in men has resulted in an incomplete, and possibly inaccurate, assessment of how often men experience these issues.

In turn, researchers are trying to figure out how to convince men to get help. Public health campaigns have helped, as have interventions designed to address the stigma associated with seeking guidance.

Now, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition makes the case for an overlooked entry point to better mental health: food.

Specifically, the study supports the Mediterranean diet as a tool for improving the symptoms of depression in young men. While food alone can’t “cure” poor mental health, it can arguably influence better mental health overall.

“Diet could definitely be the first step towards recovery,” explains first author Jessica Bayes.

Bayes is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Technology Sydney and a nutritionist. Nutritional psychiatry — an emerging field concerned with how nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns affect mental health — could help treat common mental health issues, Bayes says.

A healthy diet change can serve as a mental health intervention.Getty Images

There is a problem, though: The emerging science suffers from a lack of quality data. The Mediterranean diet is associated with improved mental health, but most of what we know is based on observational evidence found in older populations.

Bayes’ study is the first randomized clinical trial to test the Mediterranean diet as a treatment for young men diagnosed with depression. In this case, they chose to focus on men between the ages of 18 and 24 because this group is known to rarely seek help for mental health but rates of depression sharply increase during “emerging adulthood.”

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet mimics an idealized version of what people from that part of the world eat. This heart-healthy way of eating is, in part, thought to be successful because it’s also pretty delicious — it’s easier to stick to than other diets.

Overall, the Mediterranean diet prioritizes olive oil, nuts, whole grains, oily fish, legumes, and colorful vegetables.

In Bayes’ study, a group of 72 men was broken into two groups — a control group and a group that met with a nutritionist three times over 12 weeks to discuss goal setting, mindful eating, and how best to adhere to the Mediterranean diet. They were also given a booklet with meal plans and recipes, as well as $50 worth of Mediterranean foods.

The diet group was also advised to stick to a daily diet of:

  • Five to eight servings of whole grains
  • Five or more servings of vegetables
  • Two or more servings of fruit
  • One serving of legumes
  • One serving of nuts and seeds
  • Three servings of extra virgin olive oil
  • One to two servings of dairy

As well as a weekly:

  • Two servings of fish
  • Two to three servings of poultry
  • One serving of red meat

They were also advised to not eat more than six eggs a week and avoid processed meats, fried food, and sugary drinks.

Why can the Mediterranean diet improve mental health?

In comparison to the control group — these men simply spoke with the researchers about neutral topics, like movies and sports — the diet group experienced significant improvements in their symptoms of depression, especially regarding their ability to concentrate, sleep, and feel energetic.

While all members of the diet group left the experiment with their mental health improved, 36 percent rated their depressive symptoms as “low to minimal” by the end of the 12 weeks. Bayes anticipates similar results would be observed if the study was on young women, although that needs to be scientifically tested.

The Mediterranean diet is thought to affect depression through several important biological mechanisms, Bayes explains. Scientists believe the foods involved:

  • Reduce systemic inflammation
  • Reduce oxidative stress
  • Support a healthy microbiome
  • Support the production of neurotransmitters, like serotonin
  • Increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein which promotes the growth a survival of nerve cells

The results also suggest that significant improvements can be seen in a short period of time, and can be sustained for the duration of the diet. \

Now, Bayes and her colleagues want to examine the long-term effects of following the Mediterranean diet — and explore “any potential challenges and barriers to dietary change in this demographic,” she explains.

For many, diet alone is not enough to manage their mental health. But it can be thought of as one important tool in the toolbox. And when considering the push to convince men to take care of their mental health, every tool is important. The fact that the men in this study stuck with the diet suggests to the study’s authors a general willingness attached to this intervention that’s novel — and something to embrace.