Mediterranean Diet Betters Brain Function

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If being ranked the number one healthiest diet for 2019 isn’t reason enough to eat a Mediterranean diet, chew on this! Recent research has found more evidence that a Mediterranean diet may improve brain function in older adults. 1

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign included MRI scans in addition to testing cognitive function. The scientists went one step further by measuring blood levels of certain nutrients in place of taking diet histories, which ironically, often rely on memory. The journal Neuralmage published the study late December. 1

According to the senior study author Aaron K. Barbey, a professor of psychology in the University’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, “the basic question we were asking was whether diet and nutrition are associated with healthy brain aging”. He added that rather than looking at cognitive tests and brain health, they directly evaluated the brain with high-resolution brain imaging. 1

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, seafood and olive oil make up a Mediterranean diet, which is also limited in sweets and red meat.

Other studies have found reduced rates of chronic diseases and extended lifespan in Mediterranean countries adhering to the traditional diet and lifestyle of their people. A recent study found that women adopting a Mediterranean diet have improved biomarkers for heart disease. 2

For Professor Barbey’s study, he and his team recruited 116 healthy older adults aged 65-75 years old and checked blood markers of 32 Mediterranean diet nutrients. The subjects also completed an array of cognitive function tests and had an MRI scan that measured “brain network efficiency within seven intrinsic connectivity networks”. 1

The scientists discovered links between five “nutrient biomarker patterns” and improved results on memory tests, general intelligence and executive function. 1

Nutrients in biomarker patterns worked in concert. These included:

  • omega-3-fatty acids
  • omega-6-fatty acids
  • lycopene
  • carotenoids
  • riboflavin
  • folate
  • vitamin B-12
  • vitamin D

In addition, they found connections between three other nutrient biomarker patterns and “enhanced functional brain network efficiency”. Omega-3-fatty acids, omega-6-fatty acids and carotene were nutrients that worked together. 1

Information communication is highlighted by measuring brain network efficiency. Professor Barbey and his researchers evaluated “local and global efficiency”. Local efficiency refers to a measure of information sharing in a “confined set of brain regions”. Global efficiency shows “how many steps are required to transfer information from any one region to any other region in the network”. If a person’s brain network is highly efficient, the easier it should be “on average to access relevant information and the task should take (them) less time”, according to Barbey. 1

Sources of omega-3-fatty acids include walnuts, fish and Brussels sprouts. Omega-6-fatty acids are found in flaxseed, pistachios, pine nuts and pumpkin seeds. The red pigment lycopene that makes tomatoes red, is found in tomatoes as well as other red fruits and vegetables. 1

Riboflavin, also known as vitamin B-2 can be found in eggs, fortified cereals and some green vegetables. Carrots and sweet potatoes are a source of carotenoids, which make them orange. Folate is a B-vitamin found in many foods including beans, nuts, peas and leafy green vegetables. Fatty fish like mackerel, tuna and salmon as well as fortified dairy products and other foods are a source of vitamin D.1

When the analysis of 40 of the study subjects biomarker patterns were repeated two years later, the researchers found similar patterns like the original group. This may mean the biomarker patterns are sustainable over time. The authors caution that more studies are needed to confirm the results. 1

Here are 6 simple ways to adopt a Mediterranean eating style:

  • Choose whole grains at most meals. Go for steel cut oats, 100% whole wheat bread or pasta, bulgur, farro and other ancient grains.
  • Include a variety of fruit in your diet daily. Choose berries, citrus fruit, apples and pears.
  • Add green leafy vegetables to soup, salad, eggs and other dishes.
  • Swap meat with beans in chili, soup and pasta
  • Add chopped walnuts, pistachios and other nuts to yogurt, cereal and salad
  • Limit sugary desserts and drinks.
  • Limit the amount of solid added fats from processed foods, fatty meats, and full fat dairy products.

One easy way to use more citrus fruit and less butter is to try our vegan lemon or orange "butter." Simply pierce and roast a whole orange or lemon in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour and use it to top seafood, salads, and veggies. Use it like melted butter!

DSC8677 Mediterranean Diet Betters Brain Function DSC8695 Mediterranean Diet Betters Brain Function



  1. Nutritional status, brain network organization, and general intelligence Marta K.Zamroziewicz M. TanveerTalukdar, Chris E.Zwilling Aron K.Barbey.  NeuroImage Volume 161, 1 November 2017, Pages 241-250
  1. Assessment of Risk Factors and Biomarkers Associated With Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Among Women Consuming a Mediterranean Diet Shafqat Ahmad, PhD, Vinayaga Moorthy, PhDOlga V. Demler, PhD, ; et alFrank B. Hu, MD, PhDPaul M Ridker, MD, MPHDaniel I. Chasman, PhDSamia Mora, MD, MHS. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(8):e185708. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.5708

Submitted by Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD



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