The Science Behind Brain Foods & the Mediterranean Diet

What does a diet for your brain care look like in everyday life?

Understanding “Diet”
There are hundreds of different diets touted around the world for their claimed health benefits and the diet industry in the United States is a multi-billion-dollar industry and growing. Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of diet trends that come online in the United States and chart their course and then fade away, which has caused quite a bit of confusion around diet, nutrition and health. Many experts agree that it would be rare that one diet would be beneficial for all individuals based on our individual health profile, background and preferences. However, there is one diet and lifestyle that has been showing promising results for health and brain health for large groups of people across the world from Italy, France, Greece, Spain, various places in the United States (West Coast and Northeast states), and more who have opted to follow its recommended guidelines.

Essentially, a “diet” defines the common foods a person eats. But when a person adheres to a “diet” he/she opts to limit the food he/she would eat for a variety of reasons. Commonly, we have health-related goals to balance our weight, monitor our cholesterol or other known factors that our diet can influence in relationship to our health. I provide the information about “diet” to lay the groundwork for how we use the word in our day-to-day lives. Collectively, the “Mediterranean Diet” is more than a “diet” because it focuses on other aspects of our well-being beyond the food that nourishes us and is not one of the “diets” that may come to mind when we first hear that “d” word.

The Mediterranean Diet & Lifestyle
The U.S. News & World Report has ranked the Mediterranean diet as the world’s “Best Diet” for the past four years (this year it tied with the flexitarian diet). This diet has ranked at the top of many diet lists because it is a structured eating pattern rather than a prescribed diet (restricted food list) and has been dubbed the easiest diet to follow. The diet goes beyond food to include an emphasis on a lifestyle that encompasses daily exercise, social connection and relationships, and the importance of staying properly hydrated (more on this topic in our next blog!).  Essentially, the Mediterranean diet provides general rules for food choices and lifestyle recommendations for individuals to follow to meet their personal food preferences, physical movement goals and social life. (The Mediterranean diet pyramid guidelines can be reviewed and printed here.)

The Mediterranean diet boasts a daily menu rich in vegetables and fruits (bright colors and dark, leafy greens), whole wheat grains, healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, seeds) and lean proteins (legumes, beans, fish, chicken) flavored with herbs and spices. Moderate amounts of dairy and eggs are also included in this diet with an occasional sweet and a glass of red wine. Red meat is rarely consumed and in small portions of around four ounces or less (a portion size about the palm of your hand or smaller) and seafood is consumed at least two times per week. Meals are commonly enjoyed with others and may include a glass of red wine (…if this is something one may enjoy; if not, there is not a widely agreed-upon recommendation that adding wine to one’s diet offers additional health benefits).

Mind Fuel Tips
There is growing evidence that links our brain performance and function to the foods we eat. Below are a few simple tips to follow the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.

1. Follow the plant slant.
Try to eat 5-8 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Consider each serving size about a handful or the size of a medium apple. Start simple and eat one serving at each meal. To begin, consistently add one serving to breakfast to make it a habit and then slowly add another serving to the next meal until you reach your desired goal.

2. Eat the color of the rainbow.
Aim to eat the color of the rainbow each day or to have a colorful plate at each meal. Plan to include at least 1-2 leafy greens daily to get started, such as kale, spinach or salad. A simple way to add color is with a wide variety of vegetables. Purposefully use fresh fruits as a topping with fresh berries, seeds, or nuts to get an additional serving towards your daily goal and to make your plate more appealing. Remember the acronym Roy G. Biv (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo-Violet) to check off the list for the colors of the rainbow. How many colors can you get in a meal? How many colors can you get in a day?

3. Spice it up.
Add spices for additional vitamins and minerals. Try a few brain-healthy spices that include some research-based benefits for the brain: rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, mint, ginger, sage, thyme, curcumin, turmeric, saffron and more. Remember the saying, “We eat first with our eyes,” and our brains are 90% visual. Use color and your senses — vision, smell  and taste — to enhance your meals.

4. Enjoy healthy fats.
Our brains are up to 70% fat and require a lot of energy to perform well. The right fats fuel our brains. Aim to use olive oil, beans, legumes, avocados, seeds, lean proteins and tree nuts (limit nuts to a small handful). Consider a walnut that resembles a small brain.

Keep in mind that moving the body daily and staying connected with others is part of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Our mind, body and spirt all contribute to our brain wellness. I recognize for many (including myself) that it is a mind-shift to think about the food we eat and how it influences the tasks we ask our brains to perform in our everyday life. We make multiple choices every day about the food we consume. My hope is that we all make one food choice that is better for our brain each day. May we all nourish to flourish for our optimal brain care.

In brain health & wellness,


**Written for “EngAGE Your Brain!” blog series for Northeast Ohio Boomer & Beyond Magazine. Read the original article post here.

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