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Mediterranean Diet May Benefit Your Noggin as Well as Your Heart

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Mar 5th 2013

If you're a fan of the Mediterranean diet, you might be doing your brain a favor as well as your heart.

carafe of olive oilI've followed the Mediterranean diet craze with interest over the years, hoping that a truly definitive study would finally show us what we should already know - namely, that making healthy eating choices actually benefits our hearts and well-being.

That study may have arrived. In the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, a diverse group of researchers reported the results of what is being called the most thorough and soundly constructed study of the effects of the Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular health.

How does this relate to brain health and mental wellbeing? We've long known that what's good for the heart is good for the brain. The brain relies on healthy blood flow and the carriage of oxygen and nutrients to its cells. If the heart isn't working well, the brain suffers.

The study included over 7,000 adults between the ages of 55 and 80 who did not have cardiovascular disease but did have at least three risk factors such as Type II diabetes, a history of smoking, hypertension, obesity, or a family history of heart disease.

The participants were divided into three groups, each of which was instructed to eat a specific diet: (a) a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, (b) a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts, or (c) a control diet in which participants were advised to lower their fat intake.

The researchers followed the participants over almost five years to measure the incidence of heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from other cardiovascular causes among the three groups. Their findings were so clear that they halted the study early because they felt it was unfair to keep the control group off of the Mediterranean diet. In short, the two groups eating the Mediterranean diet (and compliance was good, by the way) suffered significantly fewer cardiovascular events than the control group. There was not a significant difference between the group eating more olive oil and the group eating more nuts, indicating that either source of healthy fats was beneficial.

Intrigued? I am. If you're not familiar with the Mediterranean diet, it includes a high intake of:

  • Olive oil
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains

It also includes a moderate intake of:

  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Wine (with meals)

Finally, the diet encourages a low intake of:

  • Dairy
  • Red meat
  • Processed foods
  • Sweets

Other studies have supported the idea that a Mediterranean diet can reduce risk of depression (see this New York Times article) and can increase mental vitality (see this abstract). As always, talk to your doctor before dramatically changing your eating habits. But the Mediterranean diet may be something to consider if you're interested in enhancing your wellbeing in many dimensions.


Estruch, R., et al. (2013). Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. New England Journal of Medicine, Advance Online Access, doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1200303


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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