Food is about so much more than just a collection of nutrients, but in a world obsessed with counting macros or calories, we sometimes forget about all the other reasons we eat – not least for our enjoyment and our social life.
The reality is, we don’t eat foods in isolation – we eat meals with a delicious diversity of foods and a more complex mix of nutrients that can interact with each other. So, it makes sense that our overall diet, the variety and the quality of our food, is far more important than the individual ingredients.
In a nutshell: A 2020 systematic review has revealed the link between our dietary patterns and quality of life (health-related, that is) – and it looks like a Mediterranean-style diet comes out on top for our health and happiness.
For a systematic review, researchers pooled together the results of 13 studies with over 43,000 people. They investigated which type of dietary pattern was linked with the best ‘health related quality of life’, (HRQOL) i.e. how much we feel our health impacts our quality of life and overall wellbeing, taking into account social, emotional and physical health.
There were 4 main dietary patterns under investigation. The exact definitions varied between studies, so it’s no exact science, but they were generally considered as…
- ‘Healthy’: high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood, whole grains, and low intake of refined grains, processed meat and sweetened foods
- ‘Mediterranean’: non-refined i.e. wholegrain, cereals and products, vegetables, fruits, olive oil, yoghurt
- ‘Unhealthy’: higher intake of ready prepared foods, pastries, biscuits, alcohol, carbonated drinks, and lower intake of fruits, vegetables, cereals, and yoghurt
- ‘Western’: increased intake of saturated fat and refined foods, along with low intake of vegetables and fruits
Overall, a ‘healthy’ dietary pattern and a ‘Mediterranean’ dietary pattern were associated with a better HRQOL, in terms of both mental and physical aspects. What’s more, the more people stuck to the ‘healthy’ dietary pattern, the better the HRQOL scores.
While ‘unhealthy’ dietary patterns and ‘Western’ dietary patterns were linked with lower HRQOL scores.
This reinforces the power of nutrition on not just our physical, but our mental wellbeing and quality of life.
The Western diet effects
The researchers explained the link between ‘Western’ dietary patterns and insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome (i.e. blood pressure, blood sugar, high cholesterol and blood fats), weight management challenges and risk of cardiovascular disease.
Some studies reported on the negative effects of the ‘Western’ diet on depression and anxiety, as well as mental and cognitive disorders. How? It’s possibly explained (at least in some way) by the high levels of saturated and trans fats, added sugar, red and processed meat, and low levels of dietary fibre which could increase inflammation and affect the brain’s memory and ability to learn (aka the brain-derived neurotrophic factor).
The Mediterranean diet effects
On the other hand, studies showed the Mediterranean dietary pattern could protect against a bunch of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular, metabolic syndrome and type-2 diabetes, as well as reduce the risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia.
As this was based on observational studies, we can’t be sure it was the dietary patterns alone that led to, or whether there were other factors responsible. More long-term studies will be key to really clarify this link, as well as explore the effects of other common dietary patterns internationally.
That said (without overstepping the findings) it’s a pretty powerful indicator that having a healthy, balanced overall diet is key to our overall health and happiness. Less fixation on individual nutrients, more celebration of the variety of all our deliciously diverse whole foods!