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Over time it has been well established that
a healthy and nutritiously balanced diet plays a vital role in overall
well-being and health. Among the different diets gaining popularity, the
Mediterranean diet is the new favourite. The Mediterranean diet consists of
consuming fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, legumes and whole
grains. This diet provides nutrients that support brain function such as,
magnesium, essential fatty acids, proteins, vitamins (especially Vitamin E and
C) and antioxidants.  According to
McMillan (2010), ‘”There have been a number of Mediterranean diet intervention
studies demonstrating improvements in endothelial cell function, inflammation
and insulin resistance stroke and cardiovascular outcomes and in rheumatoid
arthritis.” (p. 1) But when it comes to studies on the benefits of diet on
mental functioning, the research is mostly made up of supplementation studies
or studies involving increased intake of one food source or nutrient. This
particular experiment explores the effect of an entire dietary change (namely,
the Mediterranean diet) on mood changes and cognitive function in healthy
participants. Most of the research on this has been based on epidemiological
studies, till date, which have shown results such as reduced age-related
cognitive decline and lower risk of developing dementia. A recent study was
conducted in 2009 on the effects of diet on cognitive functioning. They found
that different diet regimens differentially impact cognitive behaviour. Further
studies have also shown that increase in magnesium and essential fatty acids
may improve anxiety and depression.

This experiment was a single-blind,
randomised, parallel group trial consisting of 25 young females randomly
divided into the No Change (NC) control group and the Diet Change (DC) group.
The study was conducted for a period of 10 days, during which various mood and
cognitive ability assessing tests were given to participants on the day they
started the experiment (Day 1) and then on the last day of the experiment (Day
10).  Participants in the DC group had to
adhere to a strict nutrient dense Mediterranean diet (there was no calorie
restriction) while participants in the control group (NC) had to continue their
usual daily diet. Both groups were instructed to keep a food diary.

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The tests conducted were the 65-item
Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire, which measures six mood dimensions
(depression, anxiety, anger, vigour, fatigue and confusion), the Bond and Lader
Visual Analogue scales (VAS) which derives three mood factors: ‘Alert’, ‘Calm’
and ‘Content’. The Computerised Mental Performance Assessment (COMPASS) test
was conducted to measure changes in cognitive function such as working memory,
attention, long term memory and executive function.  (McMillan, 2010)

The results showed that while there was no
significant difference in the two groups’ waist size and baseline weight, compared
with the NC group, the DC group showed measurable developments in self-rated
vigour, alertness and feelings of contentment. But changes in cognitive tasks
were slightly inconsistent. (McMillan, 2010) This shows that although the
Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on mood aspects, the effects on
cognitive function were limited to reaction time variables. For example, for
tasks of numeric working memory and word recall it showed that reaction time
improved in the control group and not in the DC group. (McMillan, 2010). The
cause for this discrepancy is not clear but it reflects time differences and a
possible artefact of practice effects. One of the most important findings was
highly significant improvement in reaction times on spatial memory in the DC
group. This shows that the diet assists in sustaining long term attention.
Another important result was observed on self-reported mood measures despite
the study being as short as 10 days which shows consistent mood effects.  These improvements could be attributed to the
increase in consumption of Omega-3 and magnesium. The mean scores for POMS
showed an improvement in the DC group, with individuals of this group showing
decreased scores of total mood disturbance.

These results show that while having a
nutrient rich diet may have directly improved their cognitive function and
mood, but non dietary factors could also have contributed. For example,
although the participants were not explicitly told about the Mediterranean
diet, it is possible that participants of the DC group could have surmised that
their diet was healthier which led to expectations of well-being, which in turn
could have had a direct or indirect effect on their mood. Similarly, this could
have led to worse mood in the NC group. This raises a question of what
constitutes a true control group in a study like this. Moreover the study was
conducted on a comparatively less number of participants and over the course of
only 10 days. Replication with larger sample pool and over an extended period
of time could help to understand the potential applications of nutrition to
cognitive performance, which would not only benefit the public for conventional
reasons but it could also probably supplement conventional treatments for mood
dysfunction.

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