In 2015, I reported on the sleeping habits of three tribal groups whose lifestyles roughly match up with living conditions found during the Paleolithic period. Like the ancient tribes of 40,000 years ago, while awake, they were hunting, gathering and eating a diet rich in fish and vegetables, not unlike the Mediterranean diet of today. In addition to having no problems sleeping, this group of people had virtually no obesity and tended to live long lives.
Diet must have contributed something to such positive results. At the time, a study by Columbia University published in the journal Neurology took the idea a bit further than that. Their findings suggested that a Mediterranean diet could improve brain health. Having fish regularly, eating a little meat, along with vegetables, legumes and nuts is good for your brain, they said. People who follow such a diet slow down the aging process. The report stated that their eating habits might help forestall shrinkage of the brain for as long as five years. Shrinkage of the brain happens naturally as we age and can lead to dementia.
Not so fast, other experts at the time responded. Dr. James Pickett, the head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said, “This study delves further into the potential benefits that diet could have, but it does not prove that a Mediterranean-style diet can stop your brain from shrinking as you age.”
Even the authors of the study cautioned their findings do not prove conclusively that the Mediterranean diet prevents brain shrinkage. It merely has what they call an “association” with such an outcome.
A few years earlier, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine was called into question for its claim that a Mediterranean diet lowered the combined risk for heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease by as much as 30 percent, when looking at those at high cardiovascular risk. A statistical review of the study revealed that participants were not exactly randomly distributed among the three groups studied: One followed a Mediterranean diet with four tablespoons of olive oil; a second group added one ounce of mixed nuts; and a third group ate a low-fat diet. The authors ultimately retracted the original study and published a “re-analysis” of it.
Once again, conflicting or inconclusive information on nutrition left us scratching our heads, wondering what to make of it all. One minute they have us tossing out the butter, the next they are praising it as “good fat.” The next minute, they have us abstaining from drinking coffee. Then, before you know it, they’re advising us to have a couple of cups and soak up its rich antioxidants. No wonder folks get confused.
No expert will dispute that diet and exercise are important to sustaining good health, but lack of scientific consensus makes it hard for us to count the ways and to faithfully follow a plan. The only consistent point of agreement seems to be that public health professionals can agree on very little.
As to the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet, we do not seem to hear much these days about it preventing brain shrinkage, but there seems little debate about claims that a diet rich in vegetables, protein and healthy fats is good for your brain and body.
A growing amount of research suggests the best way to eat to maximize your chances of a long and healthy life is to seek out whole foods in general. One study recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at data on close to 12,000 people and found that those who ate the most like people from the Mediterranean region were significantly less likely to die from any cause than their peers who did not.
According to a study published last summer in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, in addition to potentially prolonging life, eating like a Mediterranean does indeed appear to help protect against some of the mental declines that come with age, including slowed cognitive performance.
According to the Mayo Clinic, research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet also reduces the risk of heart disease. It has been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as the “bad” cholesterol that is likely to build up deposits in your arteries.
A meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet led to a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality.
The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. According to a Mayo Clinic report, women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer.
For these reasons, most if not all major scientific organizations today encourage healthy adults to adapt an eating style like the Mediterranean diet for prevention of major chronic diseases.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.