Eating plenty of plant-based foods, fish and poultry has been found to be very beneficial to all aspects of health. Studies have linked these habits, among others, called the Mediterranean Diet, to slowing the development of many health issues including heart disease and stroke.
Experts also believe a Mediterranean diet plan is good for your brain. It has been linked to slowing the development of Alzheimer’s disease by the National Institutes of Health. Data from the American Geriatrics Society also found Mediterranean-style diets help promote better brain function in older adults.
The term Mediterranean diet covers a lifestyle in 22 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. Each is along the Mediterranean Sea and has a different specific diet, religion and culture. The term ‘Mediterranean diet,’ implying that all Mediterranean people have the same diet, is a misnomer. Diets in Mediterranean countries differ in the specific type or amount of foods included and the rates of coronary heart disease and cancer, according to a study on the origins of the Mediterranean diet, published in the Journal of Nutrition.
In 1948, a study conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation discovered that the healthy diet of local Cretans consisted of plenty of greens, fruit, herbs, olive oil and beans, some wine and lean proteins. However, a 2013 study on the history of health says, “The origins of the Mediterranean diet are lost in time because they sink into the eating habits of the Middle Ages.”
Today, countries including Greece, Italy and Spain all generally have some form of a Mediterranean diet as a staple of everyday life.
What is the Mediterranean Food List?
A Mediterranean diet can be easy to follow. Here are some tips to fill your grocery cart with the right foods:
- Go fish. Eat fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring once or twice a week. Fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are eaten on a regular basis in a Mediterranean diet. Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, which reduces cholesterol levels. They can also decrease blood clotting, which decreases the risk of heart attack. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help moderate blood pressure.
- Overhaul your oils. Olive oil is a primary source of fat. It provides monounsaturated fat, which is a type of fat that may reduce LDL cholesterol levels. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils are the least processed types of olive oil. That means they contain the highest levels of protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
- Skip the red meat. Stick to eating fish and poultry whenever possible. If you do eat red meat, make sure it's a lean cut. When you do eat red meat, make sure your portion is no larger than the size of a deck of cards. Avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats.
- Opt for fruits and veggies. Set a goal of eating seven to ten servings a day of veggies and fruits. Examples of one serving of fruit or veggies include:
- Fresh fruit the size of your fist
- One cup of leafy greens
- ½ cup of vegetable juice
- ¼ cup dried fruit
- Gear up for whole grains. Bread is part of the diet but are usually made from whole grains and eaten plain or dipped in olive oil. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal, rice and pasta products.
- Go nuts. Nuts are also a staple in a Mediterranean diet. Although they are high in calories, they are low in saturated fat. A handful of nuts a day is a popular snack for those living a Mediterranean lifestyle. Keep unsalted almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or alternative to butter.
- Look for low-fat dairy. Choose milk, cheese and yogurt made with skim milk or labeled “fat-free”.
- Say goodbye to butter. Butter or margarine is not used to season bread because they are high in saturated fat. Dip bread in olive or canola oil instead of spreading on butter or margarine. Swap butter or margarine with olive oil.
- Swap out salt. Replace salt with herbs and spices to boost the flavor of foods and meals.
- Raise a glass. Ask your doctor if your health and any prescriptions allow you to consume alcohol. If so, have a glass of red wine at dinner. If you don't drink alcohol, drink a glass of purple grape juice as an alternative. Look for juice with no sugar added, as the Mediterranean lifestyle limits sugar whenever possible. Several studies have found plant compounds in red and purple grapes (used to make juice and wine) may reduce the risk of cancer and protect heart and brain health.
Make shopping a breeze by deciding on a few meals ahead of time and creating your shopping list accordingly so you don’t get tempted by other options once you’re in the store.
Can the Mediterranean Diet Reduce Dementia Risk?
One of the many benefits associated with the Mediterranean diets has been lower risk of dementia. One of the keys to using the Mediterranean diet to your advantage may be olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil, a staple in a Mediterranean diet, has been found to help preserve memory.
The American Geriatrics Society says a Mediterranean diet lowers an older person’s risk of memory difficulties. It is also believed to protect a person’s ability to learn. A separate team of experts published a study in the BMJ British Medical Journal discovered extra virgin olive oil and/or eating mixed nuts also promotes brain health. These researchers found olive oil specifically did more to boost an aging brain’s power than simply following a low-fat diet.
Scientists from Temple University also believe that a Mediterranean diet may boost brain health because of a specific ingredient in extra virgin olive oil. This is thought to reduce the formation of plaques and tangles in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Olive oil has also been found to reduce brain inflammation. It can activate a process that clears debris from the brain. This can eliminate toxins that cause the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely, according to research from the American Academy of Neurology. Loss of brain volume can lead to developing symptoms of dementia. It is also a sign of predementia stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
You should always check with your doctor before starting any new diet. If your doctor agrees, you may want to make a few easy changes to the way you eat and incorporate a brain-healthy Mediterranean diet today.