Mediterranean diet may reduce risk of dementia, study finds: What to know about the diet


(NEW YORK) — Following a diet rich in plant-based foods and seafood can help lower the risk of getting dementia, according to a new study.

The study, published Monday in the journal BMC Medicine, found that people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet had as much as a 23% reduced risk for dementia than people who followed the diet less closely.

Researchers studied more than 60,000 people across Europe and found that the risk of dementia when following a Mediterranean diet was reduced even for people with a genetic risk, or predisposition, for dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia among older adults. Dementia is a broad term that describes the impaired memory, thinking and decision-making, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC projects there will be as many as 14 million people with dementia in the United States by 2060. Though it mostly affects older adults, dementia is not a “part of normal aging,” according to the CDC.

In addition to reducing the risk of dementia, the Mediterranean diet has previously been shown to reduce the risks of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes, according to ABC News medical contributor Dr. Darien Sutton, a board-certified emergency medicine physician.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about leaning away from processed foods and leading toward plant-based diets,” Sutton said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.” “That’s really what the epicenter, or the center, of the Mediterranean diet is.”

Here is what to know about the Mediterranean diet:

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is not one way of eating but a broad term used to describe the eating habits popularized in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy, Greece, Morocco, Spain and Lebanon.

The way of eating focuses on the quality of foods consumed rather than focusing on a single nutrient or food group, according to U.S. News and World Report, which for the past six years has ranked the Mediterranean diet as best overall diet in its annual ranking of best diets.

There are no specific serving size recommendations or calculations with the diet, meaning the amount of food a person eats on the diet depends on their own needs.

Nutrition experts say there’s no one diet that will work for everyone. Certain diets may be more beneficial depending on your circumstances, and some may be harmful depending on your health conditions. Anyone considering changes to their diet should consult with their doctor.

What types of foods are eaten on the Mediterranean diet?

Overall, the diet is mostly plant-based and focuses on healthy fats.

Healthy fats emphasized in the Mediterranean way of eating include virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, salmon and sardines, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Red meat consumption is limited to a few times a month.

All types of vegetables and fruits are encouraged on the diet, as are non-meat sources of protein like beans and other legumes.

Fish is encouraged twice weekly and other animal proteins like poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt are encouraged in smaller portions, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

The main source of hydration should be water.

Mild to moderate wine consumption, often with meals, is typical of the Mediterranean diet but is considered optional. In this context, moderation in wine consumption is defined as one to two glasses per day for men and as one glass per day for women.

Are any foods prohibited?

No, the diet does not totally eliminate any foods or food groups.

Some foods though are encouraged sparingly on the diet, desserts, butter, heavily processed foods like frozen meals and candy and refined grains and oils.

U.S. News and World Report describes the diet as leaving “little room for the saturated fat, added sugars and sodium that inundate the standard American diet.”

What are the health benefits?

According to U.S. News and World Report, “People who eat a Mediterranean-style diet have longer lifespans, report a higher quality of life and are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.”

The American Heart Association says the Mediterranean diet can “play a big role” in helping to prevent heart disease and stroke and reducing risk factors like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Consuming virgin olive oil, in particular, may help the body “remove excess cholesterol from arteries and keep blood vessels open,” according to the AHA.

Citing research, the Cleveland Clinic touts the Mediterranean diet as a way to help maintain a healthy weight, slow the decline of brain function, increase longevity, support a healthy gut and lower the risk of certain cancers.

Is the diet adaptable and budget-friendly?

In U.S. News and World Report’s 2023 ranking of best diets, the Mediterranean diet was not only best overall diet but also rated high in the categories of Best Family-Friendly Diets and Easiest Diets to Follow.

Gretel Schueller, managing editor of health at U.S. News and World Report, told “GMA” earlier this year the foods promoted in the Mediterranean way of eating are not only budget-friendly and easily accessible but also adaptable.

“Olive oil is one of the cores of the of the Mediterranean diet as a primary source of healthy fat, but you can replace that with a similar oil like grapeseed oil or sesame oil or another heart-healthy, fun saturated fat like nuts or avocado,” she said. “And you can take those principles and adapt them to other cuisines by adding the vegetables and whole grains from that country or region, lowering the red meat [intake] and eating more efficient plant proteins.”

She continued, “For example, if you prefer Asian cuisine, you can apply the Mediterranean diet principles and that might mean eating more brown or black rice instead of white rice, and seafood or tofu instead of meat.”

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