The Mediterranean Diet and Its Brain Health Benefits
There has been plenty of buzz lately about the Mediterranean diet, but what exactly is the Mediterranean Diet and is it actually good for brain health? Studies suggest it’s great for improving memory and focus and can even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by over 50%. Let’s explore how this “diet” came about, what food groups are most prominent, and how we can all incorporate this style of eating into our daily lives for better brain health. Hint: it’s easy!
The Mediterranean Diet - Explained
The Mediterranean Diet is not an actual “diet”, but rather a pattern of eating that favors plant-based foods over processed foods. It is found in many areas around the Mediterranean (think Italy, Greece, and Northern Africa), although there are other regions around the world where similar patterns are found. Although the Mediterranean way of eating has been around for centuries, the term “Mediterranean Diet” was named in the 1960’s as a result of research studying the relationship between diet and cardiovascular health in different regions of the world. It has been well known for decades that following this dietary pattern can reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes while improving metrics like blood pressure and cholesterol. In recent years, numerous studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet can improve brain health (and things like memory and cognitive performance), as well as reduce the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other dementias.1
There are several variations of the Mediterranean Diet, including the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). The MIND diet differs slightly as it focuses on specific brain healthy foods, emphasizes the reduction of red meat, dairy and sweets, and highlights the importance of specific nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids from fish, antioxidants from fruits (specifically berries) and vegetables, and vitamin E from nuts and seeds. Studies continue to suggest that following the MIND diet can reduce risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s by 53%!1
Get our FREE Guide “Learn to Eat the Mediterranean Way” with simple tips, activities, and recipes.
Forget the Food Pyramid
Historically, we’ve been taught to follow the USDA’s food pyramid, a concept that features five food groups, including grains, fruits/vegetables, dairy, meat/fish, and sweets. The goal was to eat more from the bottom groups that form the base of the pyramid (grains, fruits and vegetables) and less from the top (sweets and processed foods). This is certainly a good start, but it does not go far enough to capture the full nutritional power of the Mediterranean Diet.
From a brain health perspective, it’s best to think a little more broadly and focus on the core food groups that are proven to be the best for brain health, as well as the foods to avoid:
Download our Brain Healthy Food Group Pantry Cheat Sheet here.
Core Foods of the Mediterranean Diet for Brain Health:
- Dark Green Leafy Vegetables: full of nutrients that can support neuronal communication in the brain. They provide antioxidant benefits and help control inflammation. These greens are associated with a reduction in cognitive decline.1
- Fruits, Especially Dark Pigment Berries: contain nutrients like anthocyanins and Pterostilbene. These nutrients can neutralize toxins and help prevent inflammation. There is emerging evidence that some of these nutrients may reduce the negative impact of amyloid plaques, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s Disease.2,3
- Fish: contains nutrients critical to cognition like vitamin D3. Fish is also a rich source of vitamin B12 which is fundamental to preventing damage to neurons, the primary “messengers” in the brain that transmit information. 4 And of course, fish is probably best known for Omega 3’s/Phospholipids, fatty nutrients that maintain cell walls and regulate cellular communication in the brain.
- Nuts and Seeds: crucial source of Vitamin E (alpha- and gamma- tocopherols). Our bodies don’t make this vitamin, so it must come from diet. These nutrients protect neurons and are associated with reductions in cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s risk.5
- Beans/Legumes: full of fiber, protein and magnesium, as well as other nutrients. In particular, magnesium is correlated with a decrease in neurocognitive degeneration.6,7,8
- Tea: a great source of catechins, a nutrient class shown in clinical studies, to have significant effects on mood and memory.9,10
- Poultry: a lean source of nutrients including vitamin B3. This vitamin is converted to a form called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) that fuels a number of important metabolic processes at the cellular level. Studies link greater B3 intake with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and reduced rate of cognitive decline.11
Claim your FREE Guide "Learn to Eat the Mediterranean Way" and unlock a wealth of valuable tips, engaging activities, and delectable recipes to help you embrace and savor the Mediterranean Diet.
The descriptions of these food groups only hint at the nutritional power of the Mediterranean diet, especially for the brain. This dietary pattern helps to maintain the structure and function of the brain and keeps the many complex processes of our brains-- like memory and problem solving-- humming along. It also supports protective features like the blood-brain barrier that keeps toxins out of the brain while allowing beneficial nutrients in. And, it nourishes the systems that remove unwanted chemicals and toxins that are a by-product of the brain’s functioning, and supports growth of new neurons, enabling us to build new pathways (and learn new tricks!) even as we age.
The bottom line in our daily life: the Mediterranean Diet helps people preserve cognitive function and stay sharp while reducing the risk of decline and dementia.
Incorporating the Mediterranean Diet in Your Meals
So how do you get started eating the Mediterranean way? The good news is that you don’t have to make abrupt, sweeping changes to start reaping some of these brain health benefits. Here are a few simple ways you can begin today:
- Start by adding one more veggie each day. Have a kale salad at lunch. Add a handful of spinach to your smoothie. Try riced cauliflower instead of white rice.
- Substitute a handful of lightly salted nuts like walnuts, almonds or cashews for other salty snacks like potato chips or French fries.
- Switch to olive oil for your everyday cooking, and avoid overly processed oils like canola or vegetable oil.
- Eat one less serving of meat or poultry each week and replace it with a serving of fish.
- Enjoy a variety of berries. These sweet, colorful fruits are delicious everywhere! Top oatmeal or yogurt. Add to salads. Make a smoothie. Enjoy a bowlful for a healthy dessert. If you can’t find fresh berries at a reasonable price, go for frozen as they are picked when they are most nutritious.
- Get more beans/legumes byusing hummus as a sandwich spread or sprinkling a cup of black beans or lentils on a salad
- Drink more tea by keeping a pitcher of unsweetened tea in your refrigerator or swapping one cup of coffee with a cup of tea.
For even more tips and recipes, along with some Mediterranean diet meal plans, download our FREE guide: Learn to Eat the Mediterranean Way.
Don’t despair! Even the most dedicated of us fall short on our healthy eating goals sometimes. That’s why we designed RELEVATE to match the powerful, brain protective nutrition of the Mediterranean/MIND diets. We developed RELEVATE systematically with a proprietary database of over 2000 observational, clinical, biological, and nutritional studies. We identified 17 bioactive nutrients and vitamins important to support memory and brain health for today and the long-term. These are the nutrients in RELEVATE. Learn more about them here.
Enjoy your journey to eat the Mediterranean Way. It’s a delicious path to better brain power now and in the future. Learn more about the Mediterranean and MIND diets here.
- Morris, M. C., Evans, D. A., Tangney, C. C., Bienias, J. L. & Wilson, R. S. Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology 67, 1370–1376 (2006).
- Thummayot, S., Tocharus, C., Suksamrarn, A. & Tocharus, J. Neuroprotective effects of cyanidin against Aβ-induced oxidative and ER stress in SK-N-SH cells. Neurochem. Int. 101, 15–21 (2016).
- Wang, Y. J. et al. Consumption of grape seed extract prevents amyloid-β deposition and attenuates inflammation in brain of an alzheimer’s disease mouse. Neurotox. Res. 15, 3–14 (2009).
- McCaddon, A. Vitamin B12 in neurology and ageing; Clinical and genetic aspects. Biochimie 95, 1066–1076 (2013).
- Morris, M. C. et al. Relation of the tocopherol forms to incident Alzheimer disease and to cognitive change. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 81, 508–514 (2005).
- Serefko, A. et al. Magnesium in depression. Pharmacol. Reports 65, 547–554 (2013).
- Kieboom, B. C. T. et al. Serum magnesium is associated with the risk of dementia. Neurology 89, 1716 LP – 1722 (2017).
- Miyake, Y. et al. Dietary intake of metals and risk of Parkinson’s disease: A case-control study in Japan. in Journal of the Neurological Sciences 306, 98–102 (2011).
- Brown, A. L. et al. Effects of dietary supplementation with the green tea polyphenol epigallocatechin-3-gallate on insulin resistance and associated metabolic risk factors: Randomized controlled trial. Br. J. Nutr. 101, 886–894 (2009).
- Park, S.-K. et al. A Combination of Green Tea Extract and l -Theanine Improves Memory and Attention in Subjects with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study. J. Med. Food 14, 334–343 (2011).
- Morris, M. C. et al. Dietary niacin and the risk of incident Alzheimer’s disease and of cognitive decline. J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry (2004). doi:10.1136/jnnp.2003.025858