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Mediterranean Beats Low-Fat Diet for Better Brain Function

Mediterranean Beats Low-Fat Diet for Better Brain Function: Main Image
The Mediterranean diet is high in antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods
People at high risk for vascular disease who eat a Mediterranean-style diet with extra olive oil or nuts can expect to have better thinking and reasoning (cognitive) function years later than those who consume a standard low fat diet, says a study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

Why go Med?

The Mediterranean-style diet, consisting mostly of whole grains, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and moderate amounts of alcohol (usually as red wine), is associated with a decreased risk of many common chronic diseases and conditions, including:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer

The diet is also typically very low in saturated fat, dairy products, and eggs.

Brain food

To see how the Mediterranean diet affected cognitive function, researchers from Spain compared two versions of the diet (one with extra olive oil and one with extra nuts) with a low-fat diet in 522 seniors as part of the PREDIMED trial. The participants were all at high risk for vascular disease because they either had type 2 diabetes or at least three vascular disease risk factors, including smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excess weight, or a family history of early cardiovascular disease.

Each of the groups was given extensive instructions for following the diet to which they were assigned. People in the Mediterranean diet groups also received either 1 liter per week of extra virgin olive oil or 30 grams per day of raw mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts).

After an average of 6.5 years, the participants underwent neuropsychiatric testing that assessed their attention, calculation, recall, language comprehension, memory, and abstract thinking.

Both versions of the Mediterranean produced significantly higher scores on cognitive function tests compared with the low-fat diet.

Why it works

The Mediterranean diet is high in antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory foods. "There is increasing evidence that major vascular risk factors are associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia," said the study's authors. Since oxidative stress and inflammation are both thought to play a role in vascular disease and many of its underlying risk factors, the protective effect of the diet on cognition might be related to improvements in these factors, the authors explained.

Protect your brain with...

Besides adopting a healthier diet, give these suggestions a try to keep your brain healthy as you age.

  • Get active. Physical activity enhances circulation to the brain, lowers blood pressure, decreases diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk, and improves cholesterol levels. Essentially, it's an all-in-one brain tonic.
  • Be involved. People who regularly engage in social activities are about one half as likely to develop dementia as are less social people.
  • Quit smoking. Smokers have a higher risk of dementia than nonsmokers. Quitting smoking now can help lower your risk.

(J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2013;1-8.doi:10.1136/jnnp-2012-304792)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her doctoral degree from Bastyr University, the nation's premier academic institution for science-based natural medicine. She co-founded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, where she practiced whole family care with an emphasis on nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, detoxification, and food allergy identification and treatment. Her blog, Eat Happy, helps take the drama out of healthy eating with real food recipes and nutrition news that you can use. Dr. Beauchamp is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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