Jul 15, 2013
Lately, the Mediterranean diet — which incorporates heart-healthy foods typically used in Mediterranean-style cooking — is getting all the attention. Recent studies have shown that this diet can boost brainpower, reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, and improve your overall quality of life.
The Mediterranean diet (originated in Crete, Greece’s largest island) emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes; using heart-healthy olive oil instead of butter and herbs instead of salt; consuming more fish than red meat; and limiting portions of poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt. The diet also recognizes the importance of getting regular exercise, and enjoying meals (and the occasional glass of red wine) with family and friends.
Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, which make up a large portion of this diet, protect your cells against the effects of free radicals — molecules produced when your body breaks down food, or is exposed to elements in the environment, like tobacco smoke or radiation. Foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries and cooked artichokes, have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and memory loss.
In a study published in May 2013 and conducted by the University of Navarra in Spain, researchers observed 522 participants, between the ages of 55 and 80, with conditions that put them at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Instead of placing these participants on the low-fat diet normally recommended to prevent heart attack and stroke, they were asked to follow a Mediterranean-style diet with either added olive oil or mixed nuts. After an average of more than six years, the participants were tested for signs of cognitive decline using a Mini Mental State Exam and a clock drawing test. Average scores for both tests were significantly higher for participants following either of the Mediterranean diets than those following the low-fat diet.
Similarly, a study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that a Mediterranean diet might also help preserve memory and cognitive ability. In this case, researchers found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet were 19 percent less likely to develop problems with their thinking and memory skills. However, the Mediterranean diet was not associated with a lower risk of thinking and memory problems in people with diabetes.
Whole grains, which contain very few unhealthy trans fats, also make up a large portion of the Mediterranean diet. Some doctors consider trans fats to be the worst type of fat because it raises your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your “good” (HDL) cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet does however, include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — found in olive oil, nuts and some types of fish — which have been shown to improve blood cholesterol levels, decrease heart disease and lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. According to a recent study led by the University of Barcelona, the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or tree nuts reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular death by 30 percent.
Still not convinced of all the benefits the Mediterranean diet can bring? Thanks to its healthy servings of fish, leafy greens and nuts, each meal is also packed with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. A healthy balance of both of these vitamins has been shown to be essential to good health and, due to its anti-inflammatory properties, omega 3’s in particular may help women manage symptoms of menopause caused by inflammation, such as hot flashes, mood swings and osteoporosis.
Do you follow the Mediterranean diet? What’s your favorite Mediterranean dish? Please share your comments!