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Eat Mediterranean for a healthy mind

by Katrina Phelps

The Mediterranean diet hampers being given out during the pilot study.Eating a healthy Mediterranean diet has proven physical health benefits but it could also provide positive mental health outcomes.

UniSA is part of a team investigating this theory in a study that is providing mental health clients with free food hampers, healthy menu plans and cooking support.

Being undertaken at Noarlunga’s Community Rehabilitation Centre, the Trevor Parry Centre, the six-month pilot study – Healthy Eating for Life with a Mediterranean Diet (HELFIMED) – will be incorporated into the clients’ rehabilitation program.

UniSA’s Natalie Parletta cooking for the Healthy Eating for Life with a Mediterranean Diet pilot study.UniSA lead researcher on the project, Senior Research Fellow Dr Natalie Parletta (pictured right), said people with mental health issues often had a poor diet too.

“When it comes to treating mental health problems, I believe that lifestyle factors such as diet and physical activity are very important however these factors are often not part of a treatment plan,” said Dr Parletta from UniSA’s School of Population Health.

“Research has shown that a person who eats a lot of processed take-away food is at greater risk of suffering from anxiety and depression. And processed food high in fat, salt and sugar is addictive so it can be hard to break this unhealthy cycle.

“During the HELFIMED pilot study we will be teaching the participants basic cooking skills and encourage  them to eat more whole foods that are part of a traditional Mediterranean-style diet, such as fruit, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, nuts, seeds and fish.

“The more we can encourage them to eat healthy food, the more they will be able to get a taste for it.”

As Dr Parletta and the study team were getting ready to begin the pilot study, they undertook cooking workshops at the Trevor Parry Centre with positive results.

“The cooking workshops were very well received and there was a real buzz about it afterwards,” Dr Parletta said.

“We started off with a tuna/vegetable pasta and steamed vegetables with olive oil and lemon juice. There was some skepticism about how the vegetables would be received but the participants ate it all and commented that they didn’t know vegetables could taste so good.”

The researchers have developed a website at www.helfimed.org which will provide recipes and other resources.

As part of the pilot study, and reflective of high levels of omega-3 fatty acids provided by a Mediterranean-style diet, participants will also take 750mg of long-chain omega fatty acids each day in the form of fish oil tablets.

“The long chain omega-3s in fish oil are not only good for heart health but are highly concentrated in the brain and previous research indicates that they may assist some people in improving their mental health,” Dr Parletta said.

The HELFIMED pilot study is a partnership between UniSA and Southern Mental Health (Southern Adelaide Local Health Network).

Manager of the Southern Mental Health Outer South Sector, John Strachan said they are delighted to be collaborating with UniSA in encouraging and evaluating the benefits of improved cooking skills and healthy eating for their clients’ well-being.

“We are doing this project to investigate the benefits of a healthy diet and fish oil supplementation for both physical and mental health,” Strachan said.

“Research indicates mental health consumers with a severe and enduring mental health diagnosis have higher rates of chronic disease than the general population and this leads to reduced life expectancy of up to 25 years.”

The food hampers provided to the study participants – from Tony and Mark’s Fruit and Veg Wholesale in Newton – will contain nuts, legumes, olive oil, fruits and vegetables.

Dr Parletta is looking to build on the HELFIMED research in the future, extending it to a range of studies in mental health and also with parents of young children.