‘The gut-brain axis’: In the mood for Mediterranean food
A guide to eating from dietician Paula Mee that can help you control your overall health
Halloumi and garlic-dressed vegetables with quinoa. Photograph: Joanne Murphy
Alien was not a documentary. Yet Ridley Scott’s vision of a hungry creature living inside of us was prescient in some ways. Our gut is home to a mass of bacteria that can weigh more than 1kg, or about as much as our brain. It is even known as the “second brain”. Rather than one grisly entity, however, there is a diverse range of microbes in there, and we must treat them well if they are to keep us happy.
This “microbiome” is affected by what we eat and in turn affects how we feel about the world. Published studies indicate that patients suffering from depression have less gut diversity than healthier people.
Seeing how the pieces of the jigsaw are coming together inspired registered dietician Paula Mee to write Mediterranean Mood Food, an updated version of the Mediterranean diet that takes into account the latest understanding of the gut, and what it needs.
“In the past, the talk was of a chemical imbalance and our understanding focused on medical issues rather than diet. This emphasis on the gut-brain axis is new,” she says. “We don’t equate what we eat with what we feel or our brain health, but restrictive fad diets and extreme diets damage our microbiome. Excessive protein for example has an adverse effect on our gut and immune health.”
This book is based on a food pattern that is largely plant-based, with moderate seafood, poultry, dairy and occasional red meat recipes. “When you eat food direct from nature you don’t need to worry about getting enough vitamins, mineral or fibre to feed the good gut bacteria,” explains Mee. “And you don’t have to worry about the balance of fats or avoiding trans fats, sugar or salt. When you focus on real food, calories and nutrients tend to take care of themselves.”
Mee has shared her struggles with low mood before, particularly when releasing Your Middle Years, the 2016 book on dealing with the menopause she co-wrote with Kate O’Brien. This book is not about a personal battle, however, but about her desire to share knowledge.
“Not one family in Ireland does not have someone affected by low mood,” she says. “I want people to think food first, before they consider medication for mental and physical disease. Medication is often long term and has side effects. Our food, drinking and activity habits can be as effective, if not more effective, than medication in managing many mental and lifestyle-related diseases.”
The emphasis in this book is on fresh food and plenty of it. It explains which foods will nurture and why. So, for example, eggs have choline, which is converted into a neurotransmitter that helps to support memory and allows the brain cells to communicate. They also have a range of B vitamins that help to release energy from food and are closely linked to mood and cognitive function. The book is also clear what size a serving is and how many to have per day or week. How many eggs should you eat? Up to seven a week.
There is also a strong emphasis on using probiotics, such as natural yoghurt, and prebiotics, which includes vegetables such as leeks. “Our challenge is how do we eat something living every day,” she says. “Fermented probiotic foods are included in many recipes, and most recipes are based on the premise that we need to eat more prebiotic vegetables daily. Rather than suggesting people eat in a restrictive way, my philosophy is to use fresh food with lots of flavour to make food and mealtimes enjoyable and accessible to everyone.”
Mee, originally from Galway, has worked as a consultant dietician on such programmes as Doctor in the House and loves her food, though she insists she is not much of a chef and cooks less frequently in the evenings now that her son Cian is in college. “I love to cook at weekends, but I’m nothing special in the kitchen. I feel better when I eat well and I don’t feel well when I have a poor diet.”
The traditional Mediterranean diet has repeatedly been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. New evidence quoted in the book highlights how it is associated with better gut and mental health too. This book is not intended to replace prescribed medical or psychological treatment; it is to complement it. “This is not a diet, it is a food plan for life,” says Mee. “My book is about a sustainable long-term approach to good health and longevity – an antidote to the growing number of fad diets out there.”
Although your microbiome probably won’t burst out of your chest like a creature from Alien if subjected to a bad diet, you may suffer consequences. So if you want to keep those little microbes that you are carrying around content, better keep them well fed.
Mediterranean Mood Food plan: 10 pillars
1 Eat more fruit and vegetables
2 Eat legumes, nuts and seeds
3 Use olive oil more
4 Have more oily fish
5 Use herbs, spices and seaweed
6 Take moderate amounts of whole grains (more if you are active)
7 Get moderate amounts of probiotic foods
8 Enjoy up to seven eggs a week
9 Eat less red and processed meat
10 Minimise consumption of processed refined carbs and sugar
HALLOUMI AND GARLIC-DRESSED VEGETABLES WITH QUINOA
These high-fibre veggies are delicious with any cheese, but grilled halloumi is a great semi-hard brined cheese made from a mixture of goat’s and sheep’s milk (or occasionally cow’s milk) that originally comes from Cyprus.
4 raw beetroot, peeled and cut into chunks
4 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into similar-sized chunks as the beetroots
4 red onions, thickly sliced into wedges
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 litre vegetable stock
2 x 250g packs of halloumi, each block cut into 6 slices
Chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
For the dressing:
1 garlic bulb
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp clear honey
Preheat an oven to 180 degrees Celsius or equivalent.
Put the beetroot, sweet potatoes and red onions on a large roasting tray. Cut the top off the garlic bulb and drizzle with a little of the olive oil, then pop it onto the roasting tray too. You’ll be using this later for the dressing.
Season the vegetables and pour the remaining oil over them. Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, turning the vegetables halfway through.
Meanwhile, put the quinoa and stock in a pot over a high heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot with a lid and simmer for 15 minutes. Drain the quinoa and return to the pot, off the heat, and fluff up with a fork.
When the vegetables are done, set the garlic bulb aside and stir the roasted veg through the quinoa.
Put a cast-iron griddle pan over a high heat. Add the halloumi slices and grill for 1 minute on each side.
To make the dressing, squeeze the roasted garlic from the bulb into a small bowl. Add the extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and honey and whisk to combine.
To serve, divide the veggie quinoa between plates. Top with the grilled halloumi, then pour over the dressing. Garnish with a little chopped fresh parsley.
SPICY INDIAN FISH BAKE
The glycaemic index is a measure of how fast a carbohydrate-rich food converts to glucose in your body. It’s useful to know if you eat foods as a standalone snack, such as an orange or a banana – these have a nice low GI. But potatoes are rarely eaten by themselves. They are part of a meal in this recipe, and it is the glycaemic load that we consider. Enjoy potatoes in moderation and where possible in their jackets as part of a meal to contribute nicely to your potassium, folate, vitamin C and fibre intake. The sweet potato is a great option if you like it, as they’re high in beta-carotene, a potent antioxidant.
1tbsp olive oil
400g sweet potatoes or waxy white potatoes, cut into thick slices or small cubes
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
100ml vegetable stock
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1tbsp grated fresh ginger
2tsp garam masala
1tsp ground turmeric
1tsp ground coriander
1tsp cumin seeds
½tsp hot chilli powder or chilli flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 thick white fish fillets (such as cod, hake, haddock or pollock)
Handful of fresh coriander leaves
Steamed greens or a side salad, to serve
Crusty sourdough bread, to serve
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius or equivalent.
Pour the tablespoon of oil on your hands, then rub the potatoes to coat them all in the oil. Put into a baking dish, then pour over the tin of chopped tomatoes and vegetable stock.
Sprinkle over the garlic, ginger and all the spices and season well, then stir to combine.Roast in the oven for about 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven and stir through the chickpeas.
Season the fish fillets, then place on top of the potato and chickpea mixture and return to the oven to roast for a further 12 minutes.
Sprinkle with fresh coriander leaves and serve with steamed greens or a side salad and some crusty sourdough bread.
Mediterranean Mood Food: What to Eat to Beat Depression and Live a Longer, Healthier Life is published by Gill Books, €19.99