Young men with bad eating habits could see an improvement in their symptoms of depression when adopting a Mediterranean diet, a new study reports.

Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney have found that young men with a poor diet were likely to benefit from switching to a healthier Mediterranean diet under the guidance of qualified nutritionists, resulting in a decrease in symptoms associated with clinical depression.

The trial was undertaken by men aged 18-25, with the group instructed to follow a new diet consisting of vegetables, legumes and whole grains, olive oil, oily fish, and raw, unsalted nuts. Absent from the new diet were sugars, fast food and processed red meats.

Originating from Crete, Southern Italy and Greece, the Mediterranean diet is considered an ideal option for those living with type 2 diabetes due to it being rich in vegetables known to help control blood glucose levels. However, those likely to experience spikes in their blood glucose when consuming some fruits should opt for lower carb options such as berries instead.

Lead researcher Jessica Bayes, a PhD candidate in the UTS Faculty of Health, said: “Those assigned to the Mediterranean diet were able to significantly change their original diets, under the guidance of a nutritionist, over a short time frame.

“The primary focus was on increasing diet quality with fresh wholefoods while reducing the intake of ‘fast’ foods, sugar and processed red meat.”

Exploring how dietary patterns, foods and even specific nutrients affect mental health is part of the nutritional psychiatry field, with this latest research providing insight into alternative methods of treating depression.

“There are lots of reasons why scientifically we think food affects mood,” Bayes said. “For example, around 90 per cent of serotonin, a chemical that helps us feel happy, is made in our gut by our gut microbes. There is emerging evidence that these microbes can communicate to the brain via the vagus nerve, in what is called the gut-brain axis.

To have beneficial microbes, we need to feed them fibre, which is found in legumes, fruits and vegetables,” she added.

Following the research study, those following the Mediterranean diet showed significant improvements in their mental health, with many keen to continue pursuing their new lifestyle. With 30 per cent of depressed patients failing to respond to cognitive behaviour therapy and anti-depressant medications, these new results indicate that referrals to nutritionists could be part of a new approach to successfully treating mental health.

“Medical doctors and psychologists should consider referring depressed young men to a nutritionist or dietitian as an important component of treating clinical depression,” Bayes concluded.

The findings of this study are published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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