Eat Your Way to Clearer Thinking

By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

Healthnotes Newswire (March 12, 2009)—Anyone who’s cared for a loved one with dementia understands the agony of watching a clear mind slip away. But new research on this topic brings new hope: A healthy Mediterranean diet may not only prevent the beginning stages of dementia, known as mild cognitive impairment, but in people already experiencing mild cognitive impairment, it may also reduce the risk of developing full-blown dementia.

Fresh food, fish, & fat—three keys to staying sharp

Researchers assessed the eating habits of 1,875 men and women, 482 of whom were classified as having mild cognitive impairment at the start of the study. To determine how closely each person followed a typical Mediterranean eating pattern, researchers looked at eight food categories: dairy, meat, fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans), cereals, fish, and fat.

Eating more dairy and meat was classified as not following a Mediterranean diet and bad for health. Eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals, fish, and monounsaturated fat, particularly in olive oil, was classified as more closely following a Mediterranean diet and protective of good health.

Study participants were 77 years old, on average, and were classified into groups with low, medium, or high levels of adherence to a Mediterranean diet, depending on how much or how little of each of the eight food categories they typically ate.

After following the group for approximately four and a half years, the researchers found that people in the high Mediterranean diet group had 28% lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment than people in the low Mediterranean diet group. Among those with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study, those in the medium and high Mediterranean diet groups had 45% and 48% lower risk, respectively, of developing full-blown dementia or Alzheimer’s disease compared with those in the low Mediterranean diet group.

In summary, the less meat and dairy, and the more fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals, fish, and olive oil a person ate, the less likely he or she was to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Healthy choices for a healthy brain

Use the following diet tips to keep your brain in top form.

• Start the day with a serving of whole-grain cereal and fruit, such as sliced banana or blueberries (fresh or frozen). Add a few walnuts for a healthy dose of omega-3 fats.

• For a savory snack, try fresh cut veggies, such as carrots, celery, and red peppers, dipped in humus. Vegetables and legumes are both important parts of a brain-boosting Mediterranean diet.

• Keep fresh fruit on hand, especially easy-to-tote options like apples and oranges, for when snack attacks hit.

• If you want to include dairy, opt for low-fat versions such as skim milk and nonfat or low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese. Steer clear of whole milk and full-fat ice cream.

• Use olive oil to make your salad dressings and for cooking food at home (cook on low heat and do not allow oil to smoke).

• With dinner, try fresh, whole-grain bread dipped in extra virgin olive oil instead of a roll and butter.

• Replace one meat meal each week with fish. Try broiling or baking your fish rather than breading and frying.

(Arch Neurol 2009;66:216-25)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.

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