Neurological study: Mediterranean diet helps brain health

According to the UN, the Mediterranean diet is widely considered to be healthy. [Kai Hendry / Flickr]

Older people who don’t follow a “Mediterranean diet” are more likely to have a higher loss of total brain volume over time, new scientific research has found.

A new study published last week (4 January) in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology gathered information on the eating habits of 967 Scots, aged 70, who did not have dementia.

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The results of the study emphasise the positive impact of the Mediterranean diet on the health of the brain, stressing that those who regularly follow it have a healthier brain compared to those who occasionally indulge the diet.

The Mediterranean diet is mainly inspired by the dietary habits of Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain. It includes large consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate amounts of fish, dairy and wine, and limited red meat and poultry.

According to the study, older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely.

Michelle Luciano, the leading author of the study, from the University of Edinburgh, stressed, “as we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells which can affect learning and memory”.

“This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health,” she noted.

The researchers also pointed out that contrary to earlier studies, eating more fish and less meat was not related to changes in the brain.

Nutritional transition

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the Mediterranean diet is widely considered s a healthy dietary pattern as well as a sustainable diet considering its low environmental impact. It is also recognised by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage” of humanity.

However, current data shows that the diet is in decline in the region that gave birth to it, as younger generations appear to be less enthused about its culinary traditions.

A recent report published by the Eurostat pointed out that almost 1 adult in 6 in the EU is considered obese. In the Mediterranean region, the share of obesity was above the EU average (15.9%), except Italy and Cyprus.

Malta recorded the highest level (26%) in the EU and tackling childhood obesity is among the top priorities of the country’s EU Presidency. The Health Minister of Malta, Chris Fearne, recently told EURACTIV.com that almost 10% of his country’s health budget goes to managing obesity and about 17% preventable deaths are related to obesity.

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“So obesity is a huge burden for the health sector and our nations’ health,” he stated.

The FAO claims that the Mediterranean region is coming through a nutritional transition in which traditional habits are being abandoned and new lifestyles are emerging “with socio-economic changes posing important threats to the preservation and transmission of the Mediterranean diet to future generations”.

The UN body also believes that the enhancement of the Mediterranean diet is a critical issue for sustainable development to counteract food insecurity and malnutrition in the Mediterranean region and the world.

“All main stakeholders in the agri-food sector in the Mediterranean region should cooperate towards increasing the sustainability of food consumption and production patterns to achieve food and nutrition security,” the FAO noted in a report.

The “oliving” technology

Hit hard by the economic crisis and faced with the reluctance of national banks to lend, Mediterranean agri-food businesses are turning to the EU and seeking support for their innovative ideas.

The EU recently backed an innovative Mediterranean diet technology.

Last summer, Greek agri-food firm Creta Farms secured a €15 million loan from the EU’s Investment Plan for Europe, the so-called Juncker’s Plan which aims to trigger €315 billion of investment across Europe by 2018.

Creta Farms, which is the biggest cold-cuts company in Greece, heavily invested in a technology that allows removing saturated animal fats from its meats and, instead, to inject extra virgin olive oil, which includes unsaturated fat.

That makes the meats healthier because it lowers “bad” cholesterol, but it also keeps them tasty.

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