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A Diet Good for Head and Heart

< Feb. 15, 2012 > -- A Mediterranean diet is good for your heart - and now it looks like it may also be good for your brain.

Photo of fresh vegetables in a bowl

In a study published this month in the Archives of Neurology, researchers found that people who followed a Mediterranean-type of diet had fewer markers of blood vessel damage in the brain than people who didn't eat this type of diet. Blood vessel damage is a risk factor for stroke and other conditions of the brain.

A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. It uses olive oil instead of butter, and limits red meat to only a few times a month.

Dietary habits

Researchers at the University of Miami asked just over 1,000 people about their eating habits to find out how many followed a Mediterranean diet. The mean age of the participants was 72. About 60 percent were women, and about 65 percent were Hispanic.

Then the researchers had participants undergo brain MRI scans to measure something called "white matter hypersensitivity," which indicates small blood vessel damage in the brain.

The diet survey found that about a quarter of the participants scored high in following a Mediterranean-type diet, and another quarter scored low - they did not eat or rarely ate this type of diet. The rest of the participants fell in between the two extremes.

Less damage

Those who scored highest on the Mediterranean diet also had the least amount of white matter hypersensitivity. This finding held up even after the researchers took into account other risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure.

Previous studies have found that a Mediterranean diet seems to help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose. It may be the diet's emphasis on olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, over saturated fat that makes the difference, the researchers say.

But they concluded it was likelier that the overall diet - rather than any specific nutrients - somehow affects the brain.

Robert Graham, M.D., at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agrees.

"This just adds to the building body of evidence of the power of lifestyle changes, especially the Mediterranean diet, in disease modification and prevention," Dr. Graham says.

For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this website.

Better Nutrition for a Healthy Heart

Changing your eating habits can seem like a tall order. Fortunately, you don't have to change everything at once. Start with one or two little things, such as replacing one food with another.

Here's how to upgrade your diet, one small step at a time:

  • Gradually replace full-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt with low-fat or nonfat versions.

  • Buy cuts of beef, lamb, and pork labeled loin or round. These cuts are usually the leanest.

  • Remove visible fat from meat and poultry before cooking. Also remove skin from poultry prior to cooking.

  • Choose fish as your main course at least twice a week.

  • Replace breads, pasta, rice, and cereals made from refined grains with whole-grain products.

  • Quench your thirst with water or unsweetened tea rather than sugary soft drinks.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Family Physicians - Choosing Nutrient-Rich Foods

American Dietetic Association - What Foods are Included in the Mediterranean Diet?

American Heart Association - Mediterranean Diet