Have you ever wondered where the world’s healthiest people live? Have you ever thought that maybe somewhere people are living longer and healthier than the rest of us? If so, you’re not alone. Certain regions—called ‘Blue Zones’—have caught the attention of many researchers over the past century.
What’s a Blue Zone? Amazingly, there are a handful of places—usually small places—where people are living longer and healthier than anywhere else. Scientists have studied these places extensively hoping to understand the key to their longevity. Two of the five ‘Blue Zones’ are located in the Mediterranean. Researchers are finding that one of the key factors to their health is the Mediterranean diet. High in fruits and vegetables, low in processed food, and full of brain-healthy ingredients, the Mediterranean diet has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Now modern science is beginning to catch up with what these countries have practiced for millennia. The Mediterranean diet has been approved by many American institutions for its health benefits. But more recently, scientists have started to emphasize what the Mediterranean diet could do for your brain. Today we look at the Mediterranean diet: what it is, the potential brain benefits, and how you can start incorporating this healthy (and delicious!) diet into your everyday life.
What Is The Mediterranean Diet, Exactly?
Rather than being a strict diet, the Mediterranean diet is more of a set of ingredient guidelines. At one time thought to be a ‘poor man’s diet,’ now the Mediterranean diet is considered by many to be one of the healthiest meal plans in the world. It is based on the traditional dishes of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea: France, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Morocco (source.)
You may be picturing the Mediterranean diet as being chock full of pizza, pasta, and similar foods. However, the actual Mediterranean diet places much more emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
Shaped by the unique landscape of the region, Mediterranean dishes are based on foods grown in arid climates, such as olive oil, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, whole grains and to a limited extent fresh fish.
Full of flavor with an emphasis on whole (unprocessed) foods, the Mediterranean diet is becoming a more and more popular option for Americans seeking to transform their health.
What Are The Benefits Of The Mediterranean Diet, Especially For The Brain?
The good news about the Mediterranean diet is that it has been well-studied, and many of its health benefits have shown to be reliable and consistent (source.) According to registered dietician Marisa Moore, “The Mediterranean diet has been around for a very, very long time and is one of the eating plans that’s been studied the most (source.)”
Today, many physicians recommend the Mediterranean diet because it’s popular among patients, and it could help cut the risk of serious health issues. Various studies have indicated that the Mediterranean diet supports heart and joint health as well and may help weight loss and maintenance (source.) However, the Mediterranean diet may also have potential benefits that are specific to the brain. Here are some research-backed ways that the Mediterranean diet may support cognitive health.
It May Help Keep Your Brain Healthy As You Age
According to the latest research, the Mediterranean diet may have some important neuroprotective benefits. A massive review of scientific literature was conducted, and researchers found that multiple studies link the Mediterranean diet to slower rates of cognitive changes due to aging (source.) What’s particularly exciting about this is that these results were similar in studies across the world, not just in the Mediterranean region itself. According to some disease research, the Mediterranean Diet could protect the brain due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (source.)
It May Be Linked To Larger Brain Volume (However More Research Is Needed)
Some research exists to support the idea that the Mediterranean diet may boost brain size. One highly publicized study in 2017 measured the effect of the diet on brain volume over a 3 year period. The study included 400 participants, all of whom were in their 70s. After the study was completed, researchers suggested that those who stuck to the diet experienced less brain shrinkage. Although the study was by no means final, according to Harvard Health there have been other trials that link the Mediterranean diet with larger brain volume (source.)
The Mediterranean Diet May Help Boost Memory
In the scientific review we talked about earlier, 13 studies confirmed the brain benefits of the Mediterranean diet, including heightened memory and recall (source.) It is believed that one of the key reasons for this is because of the emphasis on nuts and oils in the Mediterranean diet (source.) The American Medical Association also published a study recently measuring the effect of the Mediterranean diet on senior citizens living in Spain. While the Mediterranean diet did not improve memory outright, it demonstrated protective effects that helped preserve the memory of those who took part. What’s hopeful about this research is that it showed that dietary changes can make a cognitive impact even in older age. Harvard medical professor JoAnn Manson called it an encouraging study because it shows dietary changes can benefit "people in their 60s, 70s or older (source.)"
General Guidelines For The Mediterranean Diet
So by now, you may be wondering how to get started with the Mediterranean Diet. In general here are some simple guidelines to remember when choosing Mediterranean-friendly foods:
Regularly: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil.
In Moderation: poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
Rarely: red meat.
Don’t Have: sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meats, refined grains, refined oils and other processed foods (source.)
Tips For Incorporating ‘Mediterranean’ Foods Into Your Everyday Lifestyle
Now that you know what to generally look for, let’s take a look at some practical ways you can make the diet work for you. It’s not always easy to abide by a Mediterranean diet living in the U.S. Our supermarkets and convenience stores are filled with processed foods. However, it is possible with a little bit of forethought. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Have fish at least two times per week (preferably fresh and wild-caught to help maximize nutrients.)
- Add a few olives to a salad or snack (but just a few!)
- Look to beans and chickpeas for protein. Instead of adding meat to every meal, try adding beans or legumes for a source of protein.
- A daily glass of wine is encouraged. Wine in moderation has been a staple of the Mediterranean region for centuries, and it can be good for you in small amounts.
- Snack on a handful of nuts, not chips.
- Shoot for having red meat only on special occasions. In general, once per week or two is a good goal.
- Whenever possible, have whole grain bread instead of white.
- Raw veggie snacks are highly encouraged.
- Your overall goal is to have a primarily plant-based diet. Make half of your plate fruits and veggies at every meal (sources a, b, and c.)
What About the Mediterranean ‘Blue Zones?’ Do They Eat Something Special?
As you probably know, the Mediterranean region is large, spanning several countries and cultures. Despite there being variety in different countries, many foods are common throughout the area.
What’s interesting, however, is that there are two regions in the Mediterranean where people are living longer and healthier than any other. The islands of Sardinia (Italy) and Ikaria (Greece) are ‘blue zones.’ The fascinating part about this discovery is that they both have a slight variation on the traditional Mediterranean diet. So what are they doing differently? In comparison to their neighbors, they consume more lemons, potatoes, honey, legumes, barley and wild greens (source.) With an emphasis on plants, the Sardinian and Ikarian diets are low in fish and even lower in animal products. Although these diets overlap with the broader Mediterranean diet, the nutritional differences could provide some insight into the longevity of those living in the ‘blue zones.’
Final Thoughts On The Mediterranean Diet And Lifestyle
These tips should give you a great start on creating your own Mediterranean diet at home. Making some of these small changes could potentially go a long way in helping to boost your overall health, especially for your brain.
It’s important to remember, however, that diet is only one aspect of health. Those who live long and healthy, even in the Mediterranean, do so because of a number of factors working together. Mediterranean culture also has a lot to teach us about living full and healthy lives, even into old age. To close this article, here are some elements of the Mediterranean lifestyle that could give you some healthy inspiration:
Move Naturally — Gym memberships are not a big thing in the Mediterranean. That’s partly because just getting around requires physical activity. If possible, look for ways to make physical activity part of your natural routine, and not just something you do at the gym. This could look like walking with friends in the evening or starting a garden.
Be With Friends and Family — Family is hugely important in the Mediterranean, and they place a major value on family time. If possible, think of shared activities you can do with your loved ones that can pull you away from individual screen time and keep you mentally and physically engaged.
Laugh...A Lot — It seems obvious, but the fact is that many of us simply don’t laugh very much. Laughter releases endorphins and is tied to a healthy brain and body. Many Mediterranean’s place a big value on humor, that could be a contributor to their long life.
To learn more about holistic wellness, check out some of our other articles in the resource section. Every week we add new content aimed at helping you get healthier in every aspect of life. There you can find all kinds of ideas and inspiration for how to live your best life.