Now that the silly season with regard to eating and drinking indulgence is out of the way and we ponder our annual commitments to betterment, it’s reasonable to consider the expression, ‘you are what you eat’. After all, it’s hard to deny – how else other than nutritional intake could we generate body tissues and have the energy to feed them? And to zero in to a specific body part, as is my particular interest, your brain is undeniably what you eat too. I sometimes get asked what are good foods to help reduce the risk of dementia or for recovery from brain injury. The research shows that the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) is a good guide for healthy eating and the evidence showing the many benefits of consuming the MedDiet is compelling. One of those suggested benefits is the protective effect from developing dementia.

So what does the MedDiet consist of – what do the Greeks and Southern Italians living in the region of the Mediterranean typically eat? Well it’s plenty of fresh fruit and veg, unsaturated fatty acids (primarily olive oil), pulses and legumes (e.g. lentils and chickpeas), moderate amounts of fish, unrefined whole grains – all washed down with some red wine. This diet avoids, or goes light on, red meat and poultry, and dairy products all of which are pretty common in the typical North American diet. This is probably not news to you. But if it’s the case that most people know this is a healthy way to eat, why aren’t we all gorging ourselves with tomatoes and glugging down the extra virgin olive oil?

The research shows that the answer to a relatively low uptake of the MedDiet is due to many factors1 And it is not just in North America – even adherence to the MedDiet is on the decline in Mediterranean regions – so why is that? In some places, components of the MedDiet might be difficult to find or if available, it might be downright expensive (eg. fish). It’s also partly human factors – yes, we’re complicated. Sometimes, people might have erroneous perceptions of food that comes from other places, have misconceptions like olive oil causes weight gain or think that unfamiliar food is hard to cook. Many people aren’t big fans of eating fish and would prefer chicken or red meat. Maybe reassuringly and not surprisingly, fewer people seem to have a problem with adopting the drinking red wine part of adopting the MedDiet.

As with anything, making change does realistically not happen overnight. Moving towards adopting a Mediterranean diet can happen in baby steps. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing – probably the reason why many diets or new habits fail. Choosing one manageable step in the right direction is…well…manageable.
– Borrow a cookery book on the MedDiet from the library and see what takes your fancy!
– How about splashing out on some nice vine ripe tomatoes, adding a sprinkling of feta, some oil and balsamic vinegar, a bit of S and P for your version of a simple Greek salad.
– Or find a YouTube video on how to make a tasty daal.
– Grow some arugula to add a kick to your salad bowl.
– Look up a recipe for hummus (it’s easy, despite seeming intimidating)
– and there’s a million recipes online for healthy fruit smoothies.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy changing eating habits but slow change over time is definitely achievable. When you think about the needs of your body and more specifically your brain, it’s worth making a few changes now to give your brain the best opportunity of thriving as you age. After all, your brain is what you eat. What was the last thing you ate?

Citation: Tsofliou, F.; Vlachos, D.; Hughes, C.; Appleton, K.M. Barriers and Facilitators Associated with the Adoption of and Adherence to a Mediterranean Style Diet in Adults: A Systematic Review of Published Observational and Qualitative Studies. Nutrients 2022, 14, 4314.

Photo by Ella Olsson

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