The Mediterranean Diet
What should we be eating?
Have you been keeping track of your eating? If so, you now have a better idea of what and how much you consume every day. If you want to lose weight, or just become more fit, that is a first step. You have to read labels too. And while you are reading the labels, pay attention to the serving sizes. You may think that bag of chips set you back 120 calories. You finish the bag and read the label only to find that the package contained two and a half servings! Yikes! 300 calories!
So, what should we be eating? It turns out that the foods that are best for our hearts are also good for our brains. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The best plan is to do what we can to prevent it. This is also true for strokes. We need to engage in lifestyle changes that will preserve memory and protect our brains. One important part of the plan is diet. Changing to a Mediterranean-style diet, high in fish, fruits, nuts, legumes, grains and vegetables, and low in dairy products, red meat, sweets and saturated fats, decreases the risk of mild cognitive impairment, MCI. MCI is a mild form of memory loss and is often an early sign of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Several studies have shown that healthy people who followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop cognitive decline. The more closely individuals followed the diet the lower their risk. Even people who were less strict in following the diet benefitted, and were less likely to suffer cognitive impairment. In addition, people who already had MCI and adhered to the Mediterranean diet were less likely to worsen and develop actual dementia. The more closely they followed the diet the lower their risk of developing dementia. People following the diet also had reduced risks of heart disease and associated diseases, including hypertension and diabetes.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean is the world’s largest inland sea. It borders Europe, Africa and Asia. About fifteen countries including France, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy, are in this part of the world. The Mediterranean diet consists of the eating habits and foods eaten for centuries by people living in the coastal sections of Greece, Italy and Croatia. This is how it differs from our common Western dietary habits. The focus is on fresh foods rather than processed. There is much higher intake of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Smaller portion sizes are eaten. Nuts, olive oil and fish, high in monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, are eaten in moderate amounts. Smaller amounts of dairy, which is low-fat, and poultry, which is skinless, are consumed. Meat high in saturated fats, and candy, are eaten infrequently. Wine is drunk in moderation, usually with meals.
What makes the Mediterranean Diet special?
Some of our body’s normal internal functions produce free radicals. Also, exposure to certain environmental toxins, eg. smoke, pollution, fried foods, etc., results in free radicals. These are unstable molecules. They bond to other molecules in our body tissues for increased stability. This behavior can cause damage to cells and cell DNA. We think that inflammation and oxidative changes in the brain caused by free radicals contribute to the changes we see in Alzheimer’s. Fruits and vegetables, important parts of the Mediterranean diet, are rich in vitamins A, C and E. These are antioxidants that fight free radicals, and therefore may guard against oxidative brain injury changes. Fish is rich in omega-3 fat and olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat. These reduce inflammation. The Mediterranean diet also improves blood flow by decreasing the atherosclerotic plaque that clogs arteries. Better blood flow to your brain improves cognition. Your heart, kidneys and other important body organs also benefit from improved blood flow.
You know what you eat. You have been logging it for the past week. If you haven’t started, start today, right now. You probably already eat some of the foods found in the Mediterranean diet. Take these additional steps:
1. Emphasize plant foods. Center each meal around fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Decrease the animal meat.
2. Use monounsaturated fats. That means canola oil, or, my favorite, olive oil. Cut out the butter, margarine and other oils.
3. Eat fish and other seafood at least twice a week. Eat skinless white meat poultry. Don’t eat red meat more than a few times each month and eat small portions.
4. Eat fruit for dessert. Save the cake, ice cream, cookies, etc. for special occasions.
5. Need a snack? Eat a cup of nonfat yogurt, a cube of low-fat cheese, or a handful of unsalted nuts.
6. If you drink alcohol, have ONE glass of wine with dinner.
As you can see, following the diet does not mean that you can never eat cheese or red meat. Depending on how closely you decide to adhere to it, it doesn’t even have to mean that you never eat pepperoni pizza or a Big Mac but you may have to eat them less often.