In a world dominated by celebrity fad diets that range from absurd, like Reese Witherspoon's alleged “baby-food diet,” to absurdly unaffordable, such as the $200 “moon dust”-infused smoothie that Gwyneth Paltrow drinks, many people don't believe there's a single best diet for your health.
But a growing body of research suggests that a meal plan focusing on vegetables, protein, and healthy fats has key benefits for losing weight, keeping your mind sharp, and protecting your heart and brain as you age.
This type of eating regimen is called by many names and comes in many different iterations, from “plant-based” to “Mediterranean.” Some people on the diet eat eggs and dairy, meat and fish, or all of the above; others are vegetarian and abstain from meat and animal products altogether.
At their core, however, most of these meal plans are very similar and have two main characteristics: they are rich in vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats and low in heavily processed foods and refined carbohydrates like white bread.
In the latest issue of the Journal of Gerontology, scientists outline six recent studies of one version of the diet – the Mediterranean meal plan – and suggest that the eating regimen is closely linked to healthy ageing, better mobility, a lower risk of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, and improved cognitive function.
That comes on the heels of a recent preliminary study presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference, which took a deep dive into the potential benefits of two Mediterranean-style eating plans. The study looked at how the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet (a version of the Mediterranean plan that focuses on “brain-healthy” foods) affect the brain.
Mediterranean and MIND for the mind
The MIND diet favours vegetables, seafood, olive oil, and wine. It puts added focus on green leafy veggies, berries, beans, whole grains, and poultry. Adherents to both it and a standard Mediterranean diet limit intake of processed foods, pastries, sweets, anything fried, red meat, cheese, butter, and margarine.
In people who've survived a stroke, the MIND diet may help slow cognitive decline, according to the most recent study. That finding builds on the conclusions from research published last summer in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
For that study, researchers looked at data from close to 6,000 older adults. Participants were asked about their diet and the types of foods they ate or did not eat. Then researchers measured their memory and attention skills using tests like word lists and backward counting exercises. Those whose eating plans lined up with Mediterranean and MIND-style diets did significantly better than those on other types of diets.
“These findings lend support to the hypothesis that diet modification may be an important public health strategy to protect against neurodegeneration during ageing,” Claire McEvoy, the lead author of the paper and a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, wrote in the paper.
Researchers still aren't sure why these types of eating plans appear to be so beneficial for the brain, but they have some clues.
Both diets are rich in antioxidants and two types of healthy fat: monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. Previous studies have found a link between these ingredients and a reduced risk of dementia, as well as higher cognitive performance.
The green vegetables and berries emphasised in the MIND diet have also been shown to help protect against progressive loss of the structure or function of brain cells. This loss, known as neurodegeneration, is a key characteristic of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
But plant-based diets aren't just good for the brain – they have key benefits for the body as well.
Why plant-based diets are good for the body
To keep your energy levels up and help you feel healthy in the long term, your diet needs to feed more than your stomach.
It has to satiate your muscles, which crave protein; your digestive system, which runs best with fibre; and your tissues and bones, which work optimally when they're getting vitamins from food.
A plant-based diet's combination of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats accomplishes that goal.
This balance is also key to keeping you full after a meal and energized throughout the day so you don't feel the need to overeat, Nichola Whitehead, a registered dietician in the UK, previously told Business Insider.
“You need to have a balanced meal — things like whole grains, fibre, and vegetables — in order to sustain your blood sugar. Empty calories [like white bread or white rice] give a temporary fix,” she said.
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