The Mediterranean diet is one that has managed to maintain popularity through changing fads, and for good reason. A number of studies have confirmed its health benefits — most of which are likely due to it being low in sugars, moderate in protein and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, along with healthy fats.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s actually no single “Mediterranean diet.” At least 16 countries border the Mediterranean Sea, and dietary habits vary from country to country due to differences in culture, ethnic background, religion and agricultural production.
That said, a primary hallmark of a Mediterranean-style diet is a focus on whole, minimally processed foods. The emphasis on fresh vegetables alone makes it far healthier than the standard American diet, which is very high in processed foods.
Health Benefits Associated With a Mediterranean-Style Diet
Eating a Mediterranean-style diet has been linked to a number of health benefits, including:
According to recent research, marine animal-based omega-3 may lower your risk of heart disease even if you’re already at increased risk due to high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and/or triglycerides.4,5
Higher levels of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from seafood or supplements was associated with a 16 percent lower risk of heart disease in those with high triglycerides, and a 14 percent reduced risk in those with high LDLs.
• Improved overall health and longevity. In one study, women who closely followed a Mediterranean-style diet in their 50s and 60s were 46 percent more likely to live past the age of 70 without chronic illness or cognitive problems.10
Mediterranean Diet Linked to Healthier Brain
Overall, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best conventional diets for brain and heart health. For example, research has shown diets rich in healthy fats from nuts, avocados and olive oil may boost memory and cognition in older adults.11,12
Previous research has also suggested a Mediterranean diet may lower your odds of Alzheimer’s disease, but it wasn’t clear whether the diet was responsible, or if people who eat this way also make many other healthier lifestyle choices that decrease their risk.
In an effort to shed more light on the potential links between diet and cognition, the researchers randomly assigned nearly 450 seniors with risk factors for cardiovascular disease — such as overweight, high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol — to follow one of three diets:13,14
- A Mediterranean diet supplemented with 1 liter of extra virgin olive oil per week
- A Mediterranean diet supplemented with 30 grams of nuts a day
- A low-fat diet
Brain function tests were conducted before and after the study. Those following a Mediterranean diet with supplemental nuts showed significant improvement in memory, while those who got supplemental olive oil experienced significantly improved cognition.
The low-fat group, on the other hand, experienced a significant decrease in both memory and cognitive function.
Your Brain Needs Healthy Fats for Optimal Function
Results such as these certainly make sense when you consider how important healthy fats are for your brain function. After all, your brain is composed of at least 60 percent fat — the most important of which is DHA, found in seafood such as clean fish and krill oil. That said, it’s important to choose your seafood wisely.
What you’re looking for are fish high in healthy fats, such as omega-3, while also being low in mercury and other environmental pollutants. Good choices include smaller fatty fish like sardines, anchovies and herring.
As a general rule, the lower on the food chain the fish is, the less likely it is to contain harmful levels of contaminants. Many of these smaller fish also contain higher amounts of omega-3, so it’s a win-win. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is another healthy choice. If you avoid fish, it’s important to take a high-quality omega-3 supplement such as krill oil.
Besides fish, other examples of beneficial fats that your body (and your brain in particular) needs for optimal function include avocado, organic grass-fed raw butter, clarified butter called ghee, olives, organic virgin olive oil and coconut oil, nuts like pecans and macadamia and free-range eggs.
It’s also important to avoid sugars and processed grains. Research from the Mayo Clinic shows diets rich in carbohydrates are associated with an 89 percent increased risk for dementia, while high-fat diets are associated with a 42 percent reduced risk.16
Mediterranean Diet May Cut Your Heart Disease Risk by Nearly One-Third
The importance of healthy fats cannot be overstated in my view. Fats are important for so many biological processes, especially those related to your brain and heart function. In the case of the latter, a Spanish trial,25 which included nearly 7,450 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 80, was stopped early for ethical reasons as the low-fat control group was deemed to be at a dangerous disadvantage.
The participants had all been diagnosed with high risk of cardiovascular disease, but were asymptomatic at the outset of the study. Participants were followed for a median of 4.8 years. The volunteers were randomly divided into three groups (two intervention groups and one control):
- Mediterranean diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, whole grains and mono-unsaturated fats, very low in meat and dairy and supplemented with 30 grams (1.05 ounces) of nuts per day (15 grams walnuts, 7.5 grams almonds and 7.5 grams hazelnuts)
- Mediterranean diet (as above) supplemented with 50 milliliters (1.7 ounces) of virgin olive oil per day instead of nuts
- Low-fat diet (control)
There were no calorie restrictions for any of the groups, nor was physical activity promoted or required. Compliance with olive oil and nut consumption was tested via blood and urine analysis. The primary end point was a composite of myocardial infarction, stroke and death from cardiovascular causes. Secondary end points were stroke, myocardial infarction, death from cardiovascular causes and death from any cause.
Remarkably, in less than five years, the two intervention groups achieved a 30 percent relative risk reduction for cardiovascular disease, and stroke reduction was an impressive 49 percent. No wonder they felt the trial had to be stopped for ethical reasons!
Sadly, low-fat diets remain among the most accepted diets in the medical community, both for weight management and cardiac health. There’s no telling how many millions of people have prematurely died from this fatally flawed and scientifically-refuted advice.
Why Higher Fish Consumption Is Likely Part of Mediterranean Diet’s High Success Rate
Besides omega-3 fats and other valuable nutrients, fish is also a good source of high-quality protein. However, most fish contain only HALF of the protein found in beef and chicken, and this is actually a very good thing. While we do need protein for muscle, bone and hormone health, eating more than your body actually needs can stimulate your mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) — a pathway that plays an important role in many cancers, among other things.
In fact, Valter Longo, Ph.D.,30 — a professor of biological science at the University of California and a well-known longevity researcher — believes the reduced protein content in fish may be one reason why the Mediterranean diet is linked to life extension and reduced risk for chronic disease. In essence, those who eat more fish than red meat automatically get far less protein, thereby preventing the excessive stimulation of mTOR.
For Health and Longevity, Be Sure to Optimize Your Omega-3
If you do not eat this amount of fish on a weekly basis, consider taking a daily omega-3 supplement such as krill oil. As for dosage, the amount of omega-3s you need depends on your body size, age, health status, the type of omega-3 and more. Your best bet is to get an omega-3 index test. This test measures the omega-3 in your red blood cells, which is really the only way to determine if you’re getting enough from your diet or supplements. Your index should be above 8 percent.
While there’s no set recommended standard dose of omega-3 fats, some health organizations recommend a daily dose of 250 to 500 milligram (mg) of EPA and DHA for healthy adults. Higher amounts (upwards of 1,000 to 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA daily) are typically recommended for the prevention of memory loss, depression and heart disease.
Other Vital Reasons Why Mediterranean-Style Diet Is a Good Choice
Aside from the important dietary components mentioned above, there are at least three other lifestyle factors that contribute to the benefits achieved by those actually living in the Mediterranean countries. The obvious one is that these are subtropical countries and most people are able to achieve a healthy level of sun exposure, as the opportunities to go outside with minimal clothing on are far more frequent than for most of us living in the U.S.
The other two are related in that they are social variable. There is less reliance on cars and automated tasks that allow them to walk and be more active and mobile than many of us in the U.S. Additionally, there is an important social component to most meals that is teach your body to burn fat as its primary fuel before you engage in this type of diet.
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