By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Let’s face it: most of us “eat with our eyes.” We tend to choose food for ourselves and our families that is easy to grab and which looks good. Same with foods that taste and smell great; who doesn’t prefer the tantalizing scent of fresh baked cookies to cooked cabbage or broccoli? Often what is most appealing, though, doesn’t jibe with what our bodies and brains actually thrive on.
Today’s attractively-packaged “convenience foods” – many of which are made with flavor-enhancing chemicals and have added sugar or lack nutrients – fall on the spectrum of what I call the “Western diet” (also known as the “Standard American Diet,” or “SAD”). It’s a way of eating that just doesn’t support health of the mind and body.
What’s so SAD about the Standard American Diet?
The typical “Western diet” is made up of a lot of processed, high-carb foods or foods with added sugar. While a little bit of sugar isn’t going to kill you, a lot of it over time can take a serious toll on the body. A few extra pounds around the middle may not seem scary, but what about increased inflammation and impairment of the blood supply? It’s these effects you can’t see but which happen over time that make the body more vulnerable to heart problems, strokes, diabetes and degenerative brain disorders such as dementia.
You can prevent, slow, or reverse many of these problems by committing to a healthy diet that fuels your body and the way it heals itself. There are a ton of “diets” out there, but the most solid research I’ve seen supports that people who follow a Mediterranean-type diet actually have better overall health and a lower incidence of age-related disabilities.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is essentially the traditional dietary patterns of the people living in the Mediterranean Sea region. The diet I recommend personally for overall health is what I call the Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean Diet (PAMM Diet), which blends the most beneficial foods of the Mediterranean diet with the healthiest foods typically consumed by people in Japan and other Asian nations. Providing the best of what two of the longest-living cultures have to offer, this “Mediterr-Asian” diet is by far one of the best diets for maintaining a healthy weight, heart and overall body, and it doesn’t let the taste buds down either.
The PAMM diet is anti-inflammatory because it is low in or devoid of the refined sugar and “bad fats” that cause inflammation. When determining which foods to eat, keep it easy and simple and think: “fresh, living and from the earth:”
- Fruits and vegetables
- Local, wild-caught fish
- Organic or free-range poultry, grass-fed beef
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy (make sure it’s organic, lots of soy is GMO)
You can also add in some of my top 12 favorite healing foods, each delicious, and each with nutrients that help keep the body in great shape.
In addition to choosing the right foods, the PAMM diet encourages eating the right amounts of those foods. These ratios are:
- 20-25% lean protein
- 35-40% healthy fats
- 40-45% low-glycemic carbohydrates
Benefits of Lean Protein, Healthy Fats and Low-Glycemic Carbohydrates
There are so many benefits of Mediterranean diet macronutrients; here’s the short-list:
- Amino acids to build and repair cells: Eat a good variety of organic, free range or grass fed meat, dairy and eggs (which have complete protein) to complement beans, nuts, soy and rice (incomplete proteins).
- Less toxins: Eat skinless chicken or turkey, or lean, grass-fed beef. Animals store toxins in their fats, so eating less of it (in addition to finding non-GMO soy, or organic, wild-caught fish) protects against consuming pesticides, antibiotics and artificial dyes.
- They contain twice the energy per unit weight than protein and carbs: Our brains are more than 60% fat, and good fat also helps our bodies absorb vitamins and nutrients.
- Boosted immune function, healthy blood pressure and vitamins: Extra virgin olive oils and avocados are rich in a huge variety of nutrients that accomplish all of the above, and more.
- Anti-inflammatory and chemical balancing: Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) help our bodies produce and regulate necessary chemical balances, as well as lower inflammation-related risk of heart disease.
- Saturated fats are less inflammatory than unsaturated fats: Since inflammation, not cholesterol, is what causes heart disease, healthy saturated fats such as eggs and coconut oil are actually good for you.
- Foods with less than 50 glycemic index (GI) cause less of a spike in insulin or blood sugar: Avoiding glucose or insulin spikes or overload can help reduce storage of unnecessary fat, encourage slow and proper digestion of food and prevent disease. (You can find a list of foods with GIs of 50 and under by using the Glycemic Index Search tool at glycemicindex.com.)
Brain Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
There’s no shortage of studies that show profound health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet. Recently, though, there were two that caught my attention which highlighted the diet’s positive effect on brain function. One, which involved 4,000 people aged 70 or older, found that 14% of the American participants who followed the Mediterranean diet showed enhanced cognitive and physical functions, compared to other participants.
This research was further supported by a 2015 study that revealed that—due to the properties and characteristics of the foods in the Mediterranean diet, which consists largely of healthy fats from fish, nuts and olive oils, and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables—the Mediterranean diet can actually help improve brain function in older adults.
In that particular study, 334 cognitively healthy men and women of the average age of 67 were randomly divided to either follow the Mediterranean diet or (as a control group) reduce their intake of fat. Participants went through a series of cognitive tests to gauge memory, attention, executive function and overall brain activity, which were repeated four years later. The follow-up test showed that volunteers on the Mediterranean diet had better scores, while the comparison group had significantly lower scores.
These are just two of so many studies giving reason to try adopting a Mediterranean-type diet – it’s more than just worth a shot, it could mean a better quality of and potentially longer life.
Give It a Try
While the New Year is a great time to try a new diet, there is no wrong time to start eating for the health of your body and brain. I personally would challenge you, if you’re reading this and feeling inspired to make a change for better health, to try just 30 days of the Mediterranean way of eating.
Yes, it’s not conveniently packaged and processed with flavor-enhancing and other chemicals to make it more appealing; but the Mediterranean diet is a food-lover’s friend when it comes to taste and variety of meal options.
Give it a shot, and take stock of any differences at the end of 30 days. I think you’ll feel healthier, happier, more energetic and sharper—and that’s a great way to start a brand-new year. Once you get in the swing of it, healthy eating can become second nature – you’ll see!
- Valls-Pedret C, et al. Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(7):1094-1103.
- Zbeida M, et al. Mediterranean diet and functional indicators among older adults in non-Mediterranean and Mediterranean countries. J Nutr Health Aging. 2014;18:411.doi:10.1007/s12603-014-0003-9.
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