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Mediterranean diet 101

Eating the Mediterranean way is good for your health
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There’s mounting evidence that eating lots of leafy green vegetables and other fresh foods helps ward off dementia and heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet, which includes these healthy food choices, has already been linked to reduced dementia risk, but previous studies were small and their assessment of diet inconsistent. Now, a large study published in BMC Medicine provides more reliable proof of the association. The study included 60,298 people aged 40 to 69 years who regularly completed detailed dietary questionnaires. Researchers scored these subjects on how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet.

In addition to greens like spinach and kale, this diet includes plenty of other fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains, beans, seeds and olive oil. It discourages consuming other fats, as well as processed and sugary food.

During an average follow-up of just over nine years, 882 cases of dementia were reported. People who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely had a 23 per cent lower risk of developing dementia compared to those with the lowest level of adherence. Even those at higher genetic risk for dementia had a lower risk of developing this cognitive condition if they adopted a Mediterranean-like diet.

The study had a number of limitations. It included only people with British or Irish ancestry. As well, it was observational, so it couldn’t determine that poor adherence to the diet actually causes dementia. It’s possible, for example, that people who were more physically active were more likely to follow the diet and it was this healthy lifestyle that lowered the dementia risk.

The diet may affect dementia risk by protecting vessels carrying oxygen to the brain or by preventing the buildup of amyloid, a hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s disease dementia.

It appears that amyloid is specifically affected by diet. Another recent study in the journal Neurology, which assessed information from 581 autopsies, found that subjects who had followed Mediterranean-type diets most closely before death had less brain amyloid compared to other subjects.

Those who most closely followed these diets had almost 40 per cent lower odds of having an Alzheimer’s diagnosis at the time of death.

Green leafy vegetables, for example spinach and kale, appeared to carry a particularly powerful health punch. The amount of brain amyloid in subjects who ate seven or more servings of such vegetables per week corresponded to being almost 19 years younger than those who ate the fewest servings per week.

In addition to lowering dementia risk, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to prevention of heart disease. However, the evidence so far has not looked specifically at women, in whom heart disease accounts for about 35 per cent of all deaths worldwide. But a new assessment of multiple studies examining the association between the diet and heart disease in women was published recently in the journal Heart.

The analysis included 16 studies with a total of 722,495 subjects who had no heart disease to begin with. The studies included only women — or separated heart-related outcomes for women from such outcomes for men — and reported a Mediterranean-diet score for these subjects. Over an average follow-up of about 12 years, women who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet had a 24 per cent lower risk of heart disease compared to women who didn’t follow the diet closely.

Six of the studies included outcomes for mortality. The analysis showed that the highest adherence level was linked to a 23 per cent lower risk of death from any cause.  

The results suggest, for the first time, that a Mediterranean diet is just as beneficial for women as it is for men.

And the benefits of the diet go beyond brain and heart health. There’s also evidence it helps maintain ideal body weight, prevents diabetes and strengthens bones.

So stock up on foods in the produce department and check out the fresh fish and selection of beans at your supermarket. And don’t forget the olive oil!

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