If there’s one dietary recommendation that’s not going away anytime soon, it’s the Mediterranean diet. Based on the eating patterns of populations living in Italy, Greece, Israel, Spain, France, Libya, Egypt, Portugal, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Morocco, the diet focuses on plant-based eating, including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. It also features more fish, alcohol in moderation, and minimal red meat, processed foods (fast food, pastries, crackers, cookies), unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fat) and excess sugar.
This dietary pattern has not only been found to reduce high blood pressure and the risk for heart disease and diabetes, but also may be linked with a reduction in the risk of developing dementia. Pharmaceutical treatments thus far have fallen short in terms of prevention of the disease, so researchers are investigating lifestyle modifications. A systematic review of 12 studies (11 observational studies and one randomized controlled trial), found that subjects adhering to a Mediterranean diet experienced lower rates of cognitive decline, improved cognitive function and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The reduction in Alzheimer’s was seen in 9 of the 12 studies. Inconsistent results were seen in cases of mild cognitive decline.
Previous research on diet and dementia has focused on individual nutrients such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, but more current research suggests that a synergistic interaction between nutrients may be more profound. A systematic review of human studies published in Advanced Nutrition found that compliance with a Mediterranean eating pattern is associated with reduced cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. The review included 6 of 12 longitudinal studies, 4 of 6 cross-sectional studies, 3 meta-analysis and 1 trial. Researchers investigated alternate dietary patterns using the Healthy Diet Indicator, Healthy Eating Index, and the Program National Nutrition Santé guideline score as well as factor analysis, cluster analysis, and reduced rank regression and discovered reduced risk for dementia and cognitive decline in 6 of 8 longitudinal studies.
The Bottom Line: More plants, less cow.
Eat more dark green leafy and dark orange vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash. Choose whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, bulgur, whole grain pasta, couscous, and brown rice over processed grains. Include berries, apples, pears, melon, citrus and other whole fruits in your diet. Add fish to your diet twice a week such as salmon, cod, tuna and tilapia. Eat more beans and legumes by adding them to soup, salad and casseroles.
Consume alcohol, red meat, and sugar in moderation. In addition to regular physical activity and staying social, the Mediterranean diet shows promise in keeping your brain sharp.
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Lourida I, Soni M, Thompson-Coon J, Purandare N, Lang IA, Ukoumunne OC, Llewellyn DJ. Mediterranean diet, cognitive function, and dementia: a systematic review. Epidemiology. 2013 Jul;24(4):479-89
- van de Rest O, Berendsen AA, Haveman-Nies A, de Groot LC. Dietary patterns, cognitive decline, and dementia: a systematic review. Adv Nutr. 2015 Mar 13;6(2):154-68