For years, studies have shown that the traditional diet of Mediterranean countries has huge health benefits, from reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease to helping ward off certain cancers. A recent study of nearly 1400 people found that the Mediterranean diet can also reduce the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, for which the most common symptom is a noticeable memory loss, as well as the risk of MCI developing into Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers aren’t sure how the Mediterranean diet does this—it might reduce the inflammation associated with brain disease or it could related to the cardiovascular benefits of this way of eating. What they do know is that the more faithfully you follow it, the greater protection it seems to offer.
Studies also suggest that the anti-Alzheimer’s protection isn’t from eating one food or another, but combination of foods. Following a Mediterranean diet is just a matter of increasing fruits and vegetables and making better choices from the other major food groups. As an extra bonus, the diet is also higher in fiber than the typical American diet.
ANTI-ALZHEIMER’S DIET PLAN: SEVEN DAYS, SEVEN STEPS
Here’s an easy way to add more Mediterranean choices to build a diet for Alzheimer’s prevention—one step a day over the course of a week or, if a slower pace is easier, one step each week for seven weeks.
ADD: whole grains like rice, couscous, polenta (corn meal), bulgur (kasha); bread is an important part of the diet in Mediterranean countries, but it’s not made with fat or slathered with butter.
CUT: refined flour products, like white bread, packaged cakes and cookies.
2. Fruits and vegetables
ADD: more servings to total up to 10 a day. For veggies, take your pick from A (artichokes) to Z (zucchini); many recipes from the region use onions, tomatoes, broccoli, eggplant and peppers. Add green, leafy choices from spinach and lettuce varieties. For fruits, aim for a mix of citrus, berries, melon and grapes. Avocados and olives—they’re technically fruits!—are great, too, especially in salads and added to sandwiches.
CUT: high-fat and refined-sugar desserts.
ADD: a variety of lentils, peas (like split peas and black eyed peas) and beans (red and white kidney, navy beans, chick peas/garbanzo beans); try them as side dishes, ingredients in soups and main dishes or tossed into a salad to make it more of a meal.
CUT: processed, sugar-added starches like canned baked beans.
ADD: olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that can help reduce LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol, and canola oil, a polyunsaturated fat which contains linolenic acid, one of the good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids. Oils are high in calories, so limit the amount to 2 tablespoons a day.
CUT: “solid” fats like butter and margarine, examples of saturated and trans fats, and foods made with the unhealthy fats—hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and tropical oils like palm and coconut.
ADD: “tree” nuts, especially omega-3 rich walnuts, plus pecans, almonds and hazelnuts. Nuts are high in calories and fat—but not saturated fat—so think of them as a topping rather than an unlimited snack and eat about a handful per day, raw or dry roasted.
CUT: nuts that are sugar-coated or heavily salted.
ADD: more fish to your diet, up to three times a week. The best choices are “oily” varieties—another source of omega-3 fatty acids, like mackerel, tuna, salmon, herring, sardines and trout. Eat fish broiled, lightly sautéed, grilled or poached, not breaded or deep-fried.
CUT: red meat to once a week; limit chicken and eggs.
ADD: low-fat yogurt and cheese (hard cheeses have less fat than soft or runny cheeses).
CUT: full-fat dairy products like whole milk; use skim and non-fat choices.
Optional: Red wine is part of the Mediterranean diet and some experts say seniors can have one glass per day with their doctor’s OK. As an alternative, purple grape juice may offer the same health benefits.
Find ways to combine foods from the diet, like sprinkling a raw veggie salad with chopped nuts, using olive oil to sauté fish and topping fresh fruit with yogurt instead of whipped cream. It all adds up to better nutrition and better health.