The Mediterranean Diet: the top-rated eating plan for gut and brain health

Chances are you’ve heard about the Mediterranean diet before. Every January, when the US News & World Report publishes annual health rankings of the most popular diets, the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet are once again shared by every media market around.

Usually, we hear or read about how the diet lowers the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But if our current health doesn’t fit into one of these categories, are there any other reasons we should pay attention to this eating plan?

A growing body of evidence says “yes”. It turns out that the Mediterranean diet may be the best way to eat for GUT and BRAIN health too!

As someone with a personal and family history of stomach and digestive issues, I’m all ears when it comes to gut health improvement. And who doesn’t want to protect their brain and prevent memory problems?

Before getting into the details of this exciting research though, let’s do a quick review of the background of the Mediterranean Diet.

Mediterranean Diet Background

According to the Mayo Clinic, interest in the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle began in the 1950s when it was noted that heart disease was not as common in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea as it was in the United States. Since then, numerous studies have confirmed a lower incidence of heart disease and stroke in these areas. (1)

In the 1990s, the Mediterranean diet became popular in the US as an eating plan. Familiarity with the diet has continued to grow ever since, especially as the internet made the plan accessible to more people, and provided ample resources for meal planning and recipes. At the same time, olive oil and other traditional Mediterranean foods became more widely available and acceptable in US cuisines.

Since 2018, the Mediterranean diet has been ranked as the best overall diet to follow in the US by nationally recognized health experts(2). And in its 2022 review, a panel of 27 nutrition, psychology and medical professionals rated this diet #1 (out of 40) in several other specific categories as well:

  • heart health
  • diabetes
  • plant-based
  • easiest to follow

What makes this diet so desirable for health and easy to follow? Well for one thing, the Mediterranean diet is not a “structured diet” in the way that many of us think of those words. There isn’t a strict plan to follow or foods to measure. No counting calories either!

In 1993, Oldways created the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid (along with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization). The pyramid helps to guide people toward a Mediterranean lifestyle. The highlights are listed below.

1. Include these foods:

  • Daily whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, herbs, spices, nuts and healthy fats like olive oil
  • Twice weekly servings of fish and seafood (more is fine)
  • Occasional poultry and moderate portions of eggs and dairy products
  • Infrequent servings of red meats and sweets
  • Water as a main beverage, with (optional) occasional red wine in moderation

2. Be active. Exercise is part of the Mediterranean lifestyle- often the choice is walking. A goal of 150 minutes of weekly exercise, plus muscle-strengthening activities 1-2 days per week, is encouraged.

3. Enjoy meals with others. Socializing at mealtime is highly valued as a foundational part of the traditional Mediterranean culture.

Now that you’ve seen the highlights, you may be thinking it makes sense this type of lifestyle would help decrease the risk of chronic disease. But just how does it help the gut or protect the brain? Read on to find out.

How the Mediterranean Diet helps the Gut

Bear with me a moment as I briefly explain a little deep science- deep inside the gut that is!

Just in the past couple of decades, we’ve learned that 70-80% of our immune system is located in the gut- and is regulated largely by the gut microbiome(3). Our gut microbiome consists of trillions of microbes– bacteria, fungi, even viruses-which live throughout the digestive tract but primarily in the large intestine (colon).

There are both health-promoting microbes and opportunistic ones. The second type will take opportunities to populate when conditions are right, and if they outgrow or take over the health-promoting microbes, problems can develop. When we are in a state of good health and nutritional balance, all of these microbes live in harmony with one another.

But when bad bacteria and other microbes take over, this causes a snowball effect. These bad guys lead to increasing inflammation, symptoms inside or outside of the gut, and may even lead to an inappropriate immune response (either a weakened OR over-active immune system).

We each have our own unique microbiome, and the balance of the good guys and bad guys is largely influenced by what we eat. And, most Americans don’t eat foods that help the good guys!

In the US, the Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of eating many low-fiber processed foods, few fruits and vegetables and large amounts of sugars and saturated fats- food the opportunistic gut microbes thrive on.

The Mediterranean Diet, on the other hand, has been shown to support healthy bacteria in the microbiome. Go good guys! The abundance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats provides nutrients and fiber that these microbes thrive on, which helps to keep opportunistic bacteria in check.

In one 12-month study, researchers studied the gut microbiomes of 600 people who either followed their regular diet or the Mediterranean diet. The researchers found significant beneficial effects in the microbiomes of those following the Mediterranean diet.(4)

One of these effects was lower markers for inflammation. Other studies suggest that a healthy microbiome supports good health overall by supporting the immune system. Gut health also has a strong connection to the brain and cognitive function. Could the Mediterranean diet be the link? Let’s take a closer look.

How the Mediterranean Diet helps the brain

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dementia is a syndrome in which there is “deterioration in cognitive function beyond what might be expected from the usual consequences of biological aging”.(5) In other words, dementia causes loss of the ability to think and process information correctly.

Dementia is the 7th leading cause of death of all diseases.

Although there is no cure for this heart-wrenching disease, one of the factors shown to decrease risk of dementia is eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. And, which diet pattern is recommended? You got it- the eating pattern that matches the Mediterranean diet which also includes regular exercise like walking!

Furthermore, research using the actual Mediterranean diet guidelines mentioned above has revealed that the closer people followed them, the slower the rate of cognitive decline and cognitive impairment.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is characterized by problems with memory, language, thinking or judgment. It’s the stage between normal cognitive decline expected with aging and the more serious form of dementia. Not everyone with MCI will eventually develop dementia, and some people even improve in their thinking abilities.

A 2021 article in Neurology concluded that the Mediterranean Diet is a protective factor against memory decline. And, even for people with MCI, the benefits of following the diet could reduce the rate of progression to dementia.(6)

Current research is building the case between the gut-brain connection and diet. It appears likely that a healthy eating pattern, such as the Mediterranean diet, will garner even more support for gut and brain health.

I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced that the Mediterranean diet lives up to the hype! If you agree, then keep reading for tips on how to get started.

Move toward a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle today!

Following are 10 tips to help you incorporate the healthy habits of the Mediterranean eating and lifestyle plan into your daily routine:

1. Start with fruits and vegetables. Most of us fall far short of the daily guidelines. Plan to include them at every meal or as many as you can. Aim for variety throughout the week depending on what is in season.

2. Choose whole grains such as whole wheat breads and pastas, brown rice, quinoa, higher-fiber cereals and oatmeal. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds offer fiber as well. Pay attention to Dietary Fiber on the food label. A good source of fiber will have at least 3 grams per serving.

3. Substitute healthy fats wherever you use them. Healthy fats include olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. Extra-virgin olive oil is the primary fat used in Mediterranean cooking and eating.

4. Include fish and seafood in your diet at least twice a week. Instead of breading and deep frying, follow recipes which use healthier oils or low fat cooking methods like grilling, baking and broiling.

5. Enjoy one or more meatless meals per week. Plant-based protein substitutes include lentils, beans and peas, and the higher-protein grain quinoa. Unsure how to cook with these? You may want to try tested recipes, such as the 30 plant-based ones here.

6. Substitute poultry for red meat more often as it is lower in saturated fat.

7. Enjoy fruit as your sweet treat or dessert. This helps to limit the high amount of saturated fats and sugars in typical sweets and desserts.

8. Drink water as your main beverage. Although red wine has been shown to have some health benefits, there are other health risks to consider, so adding alcohol to the diet is not necessary, but optional. If you want to have a glass of wine (1 for women, 2 for men) is considered an appropriate amount.

9. Get some daily physical activity. Walking is a great way to start! You can walk in spurts throughout the day, or take one longer walk. Those who live in the countries in which the Mediterranean diet is based walk frequently throughout the day.

10. When possible, share meals with others in your life. Socializing has been shown to support mental health and brain functioning as we get older, and has traditionally been an integral part of Mediterranean cultures.

Want even more ideas or recipes? Click here for seven days of menus!
Changing diet and lifestyle behaviors can be challenging. The Mediterranean diet is a winner for a lot of people, but not every diet is right for every one. If you get stuck, or would like more help and guidance on what eating plan is right for you, contact me for a complimentary discovery call today!

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