Residents among the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea seem to know something most don't. They have lower risk of heart disease, and reduced risk of cancer, chronic diseases, and cardiovascular mortality. So, what's keeping them so healthy? In short: their diet.
I'm sure you've heard of the Mediterranean diet at some point. This diet is based on the concept that one should consume plant based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, substitute butter for healthy fats like olive or canola oil, reduce intake of red meat — we discussed the benefits of this practice in last week's column— while consuming poultry and fish at least twice a week. In fact, on this diet, it is even ideal to drink a glass of red wine, but remember moderation, of course.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a total body analysis of 1.5 million healthy adults on the Mediterranean diet determined these individuals were shown to posses lower risk of heart disease, reduced incidence of cancer and cancer death, reduced risk of chronic diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and overall reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality.
In fact, "most, if not all major scientific organizations encourage healthy adults to adapt a style of eating like that of the Mediterranean diet for prevention of major chronic diseases."
More recently, in an article published in the April 30 edition of The New York Times, the Mediterranean diet was linked to enhanced brain function.
In the largest study of its kind published in The Official Journal of the American Academy of Neurology on April 30, 17,478 mentally healthy men and women aged 45 and older were evaluated to determine "the relationship of greater adherence to Mediterranean diet and likelihood of incident cognitive impairment (ICI)."
It was found that individuals with a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet were associated with "lower likelihood of ICI before and after adjustment for potential co-founders including demographic characteristics, environmental factors, vascular risk factors, depressive symptoms, and self-reported health status." To get to the point, those who adhered to this diet were 19 percent less likely to become cognitively impaired than those who did not.
However, while it was found that race — African American vs. Caucasian — did not play a factor in cognitive ability, diabetes did. Researchers determined that of those evaluated, subjects with diabetes "had no cognitive improvements from the diet."
Dr. Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, is skeptical of these finding, however, stating, "it's important to note that this study didn't look at dementia and it would be useful to see whether the people in this study went on to develop the condition," adding, "ultimately, long-term controlled trials will be needed to discover whether any particular diet can protect against cognitive decline."
For examples on the specifics of the diet, let's identify its key components.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "residents of Greece eat very little red meat and average nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables." Because of this eating style, "The Mediterranean diet has been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the "bad" cholesterol that's more likely to build up deposits in your arteries."
Nuts are high in fat, but low in saturated fat, making them an ideal choice to be added to your diet. However, since nuts are 80 percent calories from fat, they should be consumed "generally no more than a handful a day."
Whole grains are low in trans fats, so make sure to consider this when purchasing bread. Remember though, butter is not recommended as a spread. Try dipping the bread in olive oil instead. In regards to dairy, "switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese."
For protein options, limit red meat intake, and substitute with fish and poultry. It is recommended to eat fish at least once or twice a week, however, avoid fried fish (or any fried foods for that matter) as it is high in saturated fat.
For more specifics into the benefits and findings behind the Mediterranean diet, consider reading my book, "Maximum Energy for Life," published by John Wiley & Sons (2002). In it, you will learn a 21-day strategic plan to feel great, reverse the aging process and optimize your health.