There may be something in the Mediterranean lifestyle that helps prevent depression, and may even transcend nutrients. To be sure, nutrients matter. The latest study, of more than 10,000 Spaniards, found that those who most closely adhere to their traditional Mediterranean diet have a 30 percent lower risk of developing depression, compared to those who don’t follow the diet. While the researchers emphasize that the study doesn’t show cause and effect, they point out that:

  • The abundance of antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory compounds in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and other components help protect the endothelium, the lining of blood vessels. A healthy endothelium is associated not only with less heart disease but also possibly with less depression.
  • Olive oil may improve the body’s ability to use serotonin, the brain transmitter that is often found to be low in depression, and which antidepressants such as Prozac boost.
  • Omega 3-fatty acids found in seafood may improve the function of nerve cells.
  • Fruits, nuts and legumes (such as beans) were independently protective against depression in the study.

But the Mediterranean diet goes beyond food. The origin of the word “diet” comes from the Greek word “diaita,” which really means the manner in which you live your life, not just what you put in your mouth. It includes how you grow, buy and prepare your food, who you prepare it for, and if you and your family make and eat meals together.

To get a closer understanding, we asked Mediterranean Hot and Spicy author Aglaia Kremezi, who teaches cooking on the Greek island of Kea, Cyclades. “I can think of two factors that might play a role in the reduced incidence of depression in people who eat the Mediterranean way,” says Kremezi.

Her first thought is culinary pleasure. “They enjoy wonderful flavors as they eat seasonal vegetables and fruits that are tasty, colorful and varied, compared to the dull ‘meat and potatoes’ Western way of eating.”

Her second is about family meals. “Traditionally, in the Mediterranean countries, family and friends enjoy their meals leisurely sharing meze [small plates] and main courses around the table with a glass of wine or two. Also, as most Mediterranean dishes are made from scratch, the preparation of food is an added satisfaction that is very often shared among family members.”

So while we celebrate the nutritious balance of foods in the Mediterranean Diet, let’s remember its social and cultural lessons as well. Making meals together and sharing them with friends and family, while not a proven antidote to depression, may also play a role in the pursuit of happiness.