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No Gain, No Brain

November 3rd, 2015

By: Ankit Pandav

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When someone mentions to you that they are on a “Mediterranean diet”, what kind of foods come to mind? Many people instantly think a Mediterranean diet consists of gyros, lasagna, pasta, pizza, plenty of meat and a lots of wine. Others simply consider it to be a healthy diet which most people can’t afford. For the most part however, both of these thoughts are incorrect. A Mediterranean diet consists of fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and a moderate amount of wine. What’s more, a study run by Mayo clinic and University of Maryland Medical Center recently discovered that a Mediterranean diet has many health benefits such as protecting against type 2 diabetes, preventing heart disease and strokes, it reduces the risk of developing muscle weakness, and it reduces the risk of developing diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and others.1

Another recent study also shows that the Mediterranean diet may reduce brain shrinkage. A greater amount of shrinkage can be linked to cognitive decline.2 The study author, Yian Gu, states that “It was encouraging to see that the more you adhere to this Mediterranean diet, the more protection you get against brain atrophy [shrinkage].” 3 In his study, there were 674 adults without dementia who averaged close to 80 years of age.  They were split into two groups based on how closely their diets aligned with the Mediterranean diet.3 The researcher then scanned the patients’ brains and measured their brain volume.  “The brains of devotees of the Mediterranean Diet were 13.11 milliliters larger on average than those who did not eat that way.”4 The research study was a cross-sectional study and its method of scanning the brain was high-resolution structural MRI.5

This finding is important, as it appears a Mediterranean diet may help prevent brain related diseases. There continues to be a lack of effective pharmaceutical treatment for common types of dementia. Lifestyle changes seem to be the only treatment that can prevent or postpone the growth of the dementia.6  Although this study and many others like it suggest that following a Mediterranean diet can have a significant positive impact on one’s daily life, whether or not it can definitely prevent dementia is still inconclusive and will require further studies. One of the biggest limitations to this study is that it can’t show whether the diet actually caused less brain shrinkage over time. Another is that the researchers might have brought bias when picking the candidates as they only picked candidates from certain financial classes and race. Also, reliability of the patient’s self-reported testimonies regarding eating the Mediterranean diet is poor. However, it is safe to conclude that a diet, like the Mediterranean, is very beneficial for our health and this research provides us with a new and exciting opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle.7

Based on the evidence above, a modification to our American diet can lead to not just weight loss, healthier hearts, and lower cholesterol, but potentially limit the scope of brain related illnesses. So what are some tips on eating more “Mediterranean”? One way is to incorporate eating more fish rather than meat. Another way is to eat nuts instead of unhealthy snacks. Vegetables and beans are important, and even a moderate amount of wine can be beneficial. As with any healthy diet, it is also important to stay active, whether that means taking a regular light jog or pace walking. Also, a very important factor to remember is to have everything in moderation. Going overboard and having too much food of the Mediterranean diet could potentially have the opposite effect and lead to harmful results. Readers should also always be aware of their allergies since the Mediterranean diet does consist of a high amount of nuts. In the end one of the biggest questions that we should ask is that what kind of impact does the Mediterranean diet have when started earlier in life versus later stages?

References:

  1. The Mediterranean Diet. : Myths, Facts, and Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet 2015.
  2. Eating a Healthy Diet May Reduce Brain Shrinkage. Eating a Healthy Diet May Reduce Brain Shrinkage 2015.
  3. Mediterranean Diet May Keep Your Mind Healthier in Old Age: MedlinePlus. U.S National Library of Medicine 2015.
  4. Shah A. Mediterranean Diet may protect against age-related brain atrophy, dementia, new study shows. Star Tribune 2015.
  5. Gu Y. Mediterranean diet and brain structure in a multiethnic elderly cohort. Mediterranean diet and brain structure in a multiethnic elderly cohort 2015.
  6. Safaris A. Mediterranean Diet and Risk of Dementia. Latest TOC RSS 2015.
  7. Could A Mediterranean Diet Keep Your Brain From Shrinking? NBC News 2015.

15 Responses to “No Gain, No Brain”

  1. Caleb Tang Says:

    I wonder if the Mediterranean Diet is good for maintaining a healthy brain simply based on the actual raw ingredients or if the cooking process and spices involved play a role. After a Mediterranean meal, I always feel alert and fresh. I’m not quite sure why that is – maybe because they don’t deep fry much?

  2. Vineeta Rao Says:

    I never would have thought of brain shrinkage as being a problem! But dementia is a big problem that hurts families as well as the patient, so I would be up for anything to reduce that! Was there anything in these articles speculating what in the Mediterranean diet could reduce shrinkage? I would be curious to see further studies suggesting these results before I recommended it for that purpose to my patients.

  3. Jessica Ward Says:

    It seems that the omega-3s and unsaturated fats are playing a big role in this diet. Would using a fish-oil supplement be an appropriate step toward the Mediterranean diet for someone who does not like fish?

  4. Maame Debrah-Pinamang Says:

    How much of a difference in cognitive function does that 13.11ml make? I would really like to see a study comparing cognitive functions of different races and geographical regions to their diet, to discover the ultimate diet for improved cognitive function. I really enjoy the Mediterranean diet, but it’s not budget friendly. Is there a cheaper alternative for it?

  5. Abby Savino Says:

    This is a really interesting post! I wonder if the average american know that what they eat affects their brain size. I also wonder if healthy food was more affordable if people would actually considering eat more of it. It is surprising how little people know about diet and how it can really affect their health.

  6. David J Fisher Says:

    Great article Ankit! I know several people on various diets and I’m glad I can recommend this diet to them. Have you found any specific diets that can cause increased brain shrinkage?

  7. Ahlin-Joel M Sanvee Says:

    I really enjoy your blog. It is a very interesting article, but for me ,the take home message was: Take everything in moderation. There several advice on how to eat a healthy diet, but I believe that moderation is the key in everything we are pursuing in this life.

  8. Casey A Nelson Says:

    Ankit, I found this to be an interesting read, especially because I have been told that Alzheimer’s runs in my family. I do feel as if this diet can provide different health benefits as it stands, but I am curious to how it helps cognitive health. When you did research on this topic was it at all mentioned about how this diet improves one’s cognitive health?

  9. Monica Saad Says:

    From personal bias, growing up around the Mediterranean diet mainly, I see my uncles and aunts live very long healthy lives. It is nice to know that their diet may have played a role in that. Thank God, my family is healthy and most of them get to live long, fruitful lives.
    Something interesting I thought of while reading this post is that I know a lot of family, friends, and peers from my Mediterranean culture, but I know not one person that have allergies to nuts and grains. Living in America and being around lots of non-Mediterranean people, I have met many individuals with a tree nut allergy. I wonder if allergies are because of the nurture, more so than the nature?

  10. freddie Says:

    Interesting. This article tells me if you want to skip the challenge of being on a medication treatment, then early prevention by eating a Mediterranean diet is the solution which is better than the cure. I am concern about people who are already alcoholics that might be taking the wine in its excess. Hope that will not create any complication. Overall great article

  11. James Baffoe Says:

    Awesome job! I see how eating proper diet will help prevent more brain shrinkage. I know people who are vegetarians and pescetarians and I am quite amazed how much stuff they remember. That makes sense now! Anyway, did you research if taking supplements, just like Jessica said before, will have the same outcome like the Mediterranean diet?

  12. Sam Franklin Says:

    I loved your article. Did the research control for exercise habits of their participants? I think that could have a big effect on the outcomes, and since dieting and exercising seem to go together, I’d expect many participants to start exercising as they started these experiments.

  13. Kofi Amoah Says:

    Mediterranean diet has also been one of the diets I find interesting. As you said, consists of fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and a moderate amount of wine. I know it has alot of benefits but I was wondering if it can also be used for weight loss? All the same, the article was very educative!

  14. Elizabeth Aziz Says:

    Ankit, this is a great post! It is very interesting that the Mediterranean diet has been found to have cognitive benefits. Coming from an Egyptian family, this is the mainly what we eat back home are the foods you described. Like people mentioned before, I wonder what aspects of the diet have been found to be beneficial. I know my mom always complains about the ingredients in American food when she moved here. So my question is: how does the Mediterranean diet compare to the typical American diet? Great job!

  15. Matt Madden Says:

    Great article, Ankit. I had never thought that what you eat could impact your brain size and potentially cognitive function. I wonder if this diet is specific to one race, or if it can be generalizable to all races. Also, did the studies take into account the lifestyles of the patients besides their diets (smoking, activity level, etc.)? Great job!

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