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Boost Heart and Brain Health With The Mediterranean Diet

mediterranean diet

Olive oil, fruits and vegetables are key components of the Mediterranean diet. — Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

En español | New research suggests that eating a Mediterranean diet — including olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits, vegetables and even wine — can reduce heart disease risk.

Participants in a large clinical trial who adhered to the diet saw a 30 percent reduction in heart disease, stroke and deaths from heart problems.  

Learn more about the Mediterranean diet's health benefits from food expert and cookbook author Tamara Holt. She explains the easy principles of eating the traditional Mediterranean way, and then — best of all — she pulls together a collection of Mediterranean recipes from America's top chefs and cookbook authors. —The Editors

You take tango lessons and practice yoga. You're learning Mandarin. You do crosswords and Sudoku. As each research report about tactics for long-term brain health is released, you integrate them into your life. But might there be an easier way to keep your brain buzzing strong and long?

It may be as simple as picking up your fork.

Recent research indicates that a traditional Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), memory problems that are a known precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as later developing Alzheimer’s.

No super foods. No nonsense. One diet with easy guidelines and good-to-eat foods.

Food for thought — literally. Columbia University researchers analyzed and tracked the eating habits of close to 2,000 subjects for nearly five years. Subjects were grouped — low, medium and high — according to their adherence to the Mediterranean diet.

The participants with the most “Mediterranean” eating habits showed a 28 percent lower risk of mild cognitive impairment than the subjects with the least. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by subjects who began the study with MCI was 48 percent lower for those with the most Med eating habits. The average age of the subjects was over 70. They weren’t put on the diet. This was how they already ate.

There’s no call for anthocyanin-laced acai smoothies or sprinkling omega-packed flax on your cereal. This isn’t a calorie-counting scale-using plan. What we are calling the “Mediterranean diet” is a general way of eating based on the traditional habits of coastal communities around the Mediterranean, including lots of fish, vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, nuts and unsaturated fats (think olive oil), and not so much dairy and meats. Not a particular nutrient, but a way of eating, one based on plants.

Mediterranean lifestyle. The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet were first identified in the 1960s by University of Minnesota nutrition researcher and physician Ancel Keys in a cross-national multi-year study of eating habits and chronic illness. He discovered that the populations with the lowest incidence of heart disease and stroke sustained a diet with a high ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated fat — lots of olive oil, and very little meat.

This vital population in Crete, and their diet, are long gone — their traditional eating habits have evolved, or devolved, and obesity rates are growing — but the model of the Mediterranean diet has remained as an ideal. It has been promoted as an eating plan since 1993 by food-issues think tank Oldways and has been the subject of a resurgence of research more recently. Like the USDA, it even has its own pyramid.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, you don’t need to be overlooking crystal blue waters from your villa to make your diet Mediterranean.

The Columbia University research was conducted on the communities in the upper fifth of Manhattan — an area that hasn’t been farmland for a century and, other than a couple of anglers along the Hudson, it’s no fishing village.The populations were an almost even ethnic mix of black, white and Hispanic, so their diets, including the most Med, didn’t represent a particular cuisine.

You just need to focus your meals more on vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, fruits and fish, and less on meat and dairy, use olive oil as your primary fat, and drink a little red wine.

Tonight's Dinner? The following recipes, from some of America’s favorite Mediterranean cooks, follow principles of the diet. Incorporate each of these easy recipes into your repertoire, or enjoy them in one single celebratory meal.

Mario Batali: Asparagus Wrapped in Pancetta With Citronette is a succulent example of how a little bit of meat can go a long way, used as a treat and an accent flavor rather than the center of the plate.

Giada De Laurentiis: Roasted Halibut With Grapefruit Fennel Salsa exemplifies preparation typical of Mediterranean cuisine. Instead of a butter-based sauce, the lively salsa adds flavor without saturated fat while sneaking in some extra vegetables.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins: Lentil and Walnut Salad from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook is a simple bean salad that can be adapted to your taste and made a regular part of your meals.

Chef Michael Psilakis: Yogurt With Fresh Pears and Walnuts. Even though desserts don’t get heavy play in the diet (an afternoon sweet with coffee is more likely, with fruit as the ideal way to end a meal), this light fruit-based dessert can fit into the Mediterranean lifestyle when you want a special treat. Psilakis is making Greek cuisine trendy with his two NYC restaurants, Kefi and Anthos, which is one of only two Greek restaurants in the world bestowed a Michelin star. Just this spring, he was invited to cook at the White House for President Obama and his guests.

The Columbia study subjects weren’t picked for their culinary skills, but rated on a simple point scale of more or less of each of the food categories. You might decide to get scientific and prescriptive about planning your meals, but better to take on the positive Mediterranean attitude toward food and eating. 

The Mediterranean diet has nothing to do with being ascetic: Bring on the olive oil. Sip your wine. Gather friends around the table and enjoy an abundant meal. Toast to a long, happy, cerebrally sound life. You can meditate in the morning.

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