Contributing Author: Katherine Walla
New research from the American Psychological Association (APA) finds that the Mediterranean Diet is better for mind, body, and planetary health. It’s no surprise, however. Decades of research has found that the Mediterranean Diet—a style of eating developed by nutritionist and doctor Ancel Keys featuring plant-based, nutrient-rich foods—helps increase longevity and because it’s plant forward and may help improve environmental sustainability.
At the APA’s 2019 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, Dr. Konstantinos Argyropoulos of Greece’s Hellenic Open University and colleagues unveiled the research that connected vegetable-rich diet patters to lower risks for depression later in life. The study, evaluating 154 adults in East-Attica with an average age of 71, noted that late-life depression was 20 percent less likely for people adhering to eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet. And the Mediterranean diet’s limits on poultry and alcohol consumption are tied to a 36.1 percent and 28 percent drop in depression risk, respectively.
“Following a healthy lifestyle, which includes not only a Mediterranean-style diet, but also plenty of physical activity and drinking alcohol only in moderation, is linked to a reduction in depression,” says Argyropoulos.
The research joins a body of knowledge that affirms the value of living healthy lifestyles featuring conscious eating patterns that ascribe to the Mediterranean diet guidelines—which emphasize eating primarily plant-based foods, reducing meat intake, limiting alcohol consumption, and enjoying meals with family and friends. “It’s a really nice example of the potential to love food that loves you back,” says Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and founder and President of True Health initiative.
The Mediterranean diet, according to a January 2019 study led by M.T. Iglesias López, also emphasizes sharing, enjoying conversation around the table, and relaxing after a meal: factors that provide a sense of belonging through food. Harmony through meal-sharing, says the study, is pivotal to nourishment, especially as globalization erases unique cultural food habits for uniform, industrialized food practices.
And maintaining a diverse, colorful, and healthy diet within the flexible parameters of the Mediterranean diet proves each year to bring about optimal physical health outcomes from reduced risk of heart disease and stroke to improved sleep. And according to the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, the dietary diversity encouraged in the Mediterranean diet limits both undernutrition and overnutrition—a lack of diversity in the world’s diets has contributed to rising obesity rates, which have doubled in the last 30 years, and incidences of diabetes, hypertension, and other diet-related illnesses.
“The picture that has emerged is that the traditional Mediterranean diet promotes health and well-being,” says Walter Willett, the Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-chair of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. “The elements of a healthy diet were readily available in the Mediterranean.”
And with models like the BCFN’s Double Pyramid on Food and the Environment, consumers can visually compare the traditional food pyramid and an environmental pyramid to weigh the nutritional value and environmental costs of their diets. “We want to provide tools for all the stakeholders involved…” says Katarzyna Dembska, a dietician, nutritionist, and consultant at BCFN. “The goal is to enable people to make more informed choices, both nutritionally and in terms of the impact on the environment.”
While new guidelines call for changing what we eat for the sake of physical health, governments and experts call for new tools to help consumers understand food’s role in the planet’s health. According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, unhealthy diets are responsible for one third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A 2016 review notes the Mediterranean diet can transform this reality, reducing diet-related GHG emissions by up to 30 percent. And, in a food system in which agriculture uses nearly 40 percent of the world’s land area and 70 percent of water use, the Mediterranean diet condenses land use by an average of 27 percent and water use by 10 percent.
“If you’re still alive, it’s never too late to make a change in your diet,” says Willett.