The Right Food for Your Brain

Healthy eating is good for your body, but it also benefits your brain more than previously thought, according to a new study published in the “Archives of Neurology” that suggests the right kind of food may protect the brain against small blood vessel damage, thereby reducing the risks of stroke, memory loss and possibly Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, which was designed to identify risk factors for stroke and coronary disease, concluded that people who followed a diet dominated by fruits, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, whole grains and fish suffered fewer brain lesions than those who had a higher calorie and fat intake, especially from meat products.

New Study Finds a Mediterranean-Style Diet
May Reduce Risk of Brain Damage

“Normally, brain lesions are associated with hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and aging,” said Dr. Clinton Wright, professor for neurology at Miller School of Medicine in Miami, Florida, and lead author of the study report. “We saw that there was a relationship between diet and this marker of small vessel disease. Those who adhered to a more Mediterranean diet had less small vessel damage,” he said.

For the study, researchers from the University of Miami in Florida and Columbia University in New York analyzed the eating patterns of approximately 1,000 participants. They found that those who adhered closely to a Mediterranean-style diet showed a lower risk of heart disease as well as cognitive disorders.

Heart disease is increasingly seen as a contributor to age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. When blood does not flow as well as it should to the brain, it can cause those lesions, explained Dr. Wright. Contributing factors for this to happen are high blood pressure, diabetes or smoking. Diet and lifestyle choices that help prevent these diseases in the first place are the best countermeasures we can take.

The term “Mediterranean diet” was originally inspired by the eating styles of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and the northern African coast. As a specific diet, it was first popularized in the U.S. by Dr. Walter Willett, a widely known nutrition expert and head of Harvard University’s School of Public Health. According to Dr. Willett, an abundance of fresh plant foods, limited amounts of animal fats from meats and dairy products, and olive oil as the principal source of fat make the Mediterranean diet ideal for heart healthy eating among other benefits that are increasingly being discovered.

While the diet is enjoying growing popularity among health-conscious eaters around the world, critics have pointed out that the dietary factors themselves may only be part of the reason why the population in the Mediterranean region appears to be particularly healthy. Genetics, the environment, lifestyle habits as well as smaller portion sizes, daily exercise and social factors such as enjoying food together as family and friends may play a role as well.

The diet alone may not be as significant as how these people live their lives, according to Kathleen M. Zelman, a dietitian writing for WebMD. “For thousands of years, residents of the Mediterranean coastal region have enjoyed this delicious diet,” she said. “They don’t think of their eating habits as a diet plan, it’s simply their way of life. And it’s a way of life that apparently leads to long, healthy lives virtually free of chronic disease.”

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