More Upside to the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet has received a great deal of attention in the popular media over the past couple of years. But for those in the healthcare community, it’s even more exciting that growing evidence of its benefits has also been showing up in well-regarded medical and scientific journals.

Act One: The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health

Much of the excitement about the Mediterranean diet has centered on its ability to promote cardiovascular health. And there’s good reason for this. Researchers from the University of Barcelona recently published the findings of a large-scale 5-year study involving 7,447 people in the New England Journal of Medicine. The aim of their research was not to reduce common risk factors such as participants’ cholesterol, blood pressure or weight, but to count the number of actual heart attacks, strokes and deaths from any cause to evaluate how effective the Mediterranean diet was in reducing these events and increasing longevity.

The subjects of this particular study had been specifically selected to participate because they had significant cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease and being overweight. Over the course of their investigation, the researchers found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of death from the effects of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke, by 30%. They were also 40% less likely to have suffered a stroke in the study’s 4-year follow-up period than those who followed a low-fat diet.

This research made a significant impression on many of those who examined the work. Dr. Steven E. Nissen, from the Cleveland Clinic’s department of cardiovascular medicine noted “Now along comes this group and does a gigantic study in Spain that says you can eat a nicely balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and olive oil and lower heart disease by 30 percent. And you can actually enjoy life.”

Act Two: The Mediterranean Diet and Brain Health

Alongside research into the cardiovascular health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, there has also been exciting new research into the brain health benefits. A group of investigators—again in Barcelona—placed 447 cognitively healthy individuals (average age 67 years) in one of three dietary groups:

  • A group of participants that ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil (1 liter per week)
  • A group of participants that ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts (30 grams per day)
  • A control diet group of participants that was advised to reduce dietary fat.

Participants in all three groups received baseline cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study, and those remaining in the study after approximately 4 years (about 75% of them) were tested again at the end of this period. The participants who consumed the Mediterranean diet with additional with extra virgin olive oil experienced significantly better cognitive function, while those who ate the mixed nuts experienced significant improvements in memory. At the same time, those participants who followed the low-fat control diet experienced a significant decrease in memory and cognitive function.

Why are olive oil and nuts brain boosters? Scientists have a few theories, but one of the most widely cited has to do with oleic acid. Both olive oil and nuts are rich in oleic acid, a fatty acid that is a key ingredient in myelin, a protective covering that twists around nerves (neurons), including those in the human brain. The myelin sheath is critical for nerve functioning. It insulates nerves and prevents electrical current from leaking out of the axon so that they can communicate effectively with each other. The brain—of course—depends on the foods we eat for nourishment, so it’s not surprising that some foods may positively affect performance while others may hamper it. The antioxidant-rich foods in Mediterranean diets as well as nuts and olive oil provide nourishment to the brain and appear to help protect against overall brain health and cognitive decline.

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