4 Ways The Mediterranean Diet Affects Brain Health

According to science.

By: Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC

Brain health refers to the ability to perform all the mental processes of cognition, including the ability to learn and judge, use language, and remember. Having a healthy brain can help you function, think, learn, and perform all of your daily activities with ease. 

Many factors can impact your brain health, including your age, lifestyle, and stress level. And when it comes to dietary choices, including certain foods while limiting others may help support your brain health as well. 

Among the many dietary patterns to follow, the Mediterranean Diet is one that may be most impactful for those who are trying to keep their brain health in check. Keep reading to learn about the potential link between following the Mediterranean diet and brain health. 

RELATED: Mediterranean Diet 101

What is The Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating that’s inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. It’s highly recognized for its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and olive oil as the primary sources of dietary fats. The diet also includes moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt, and infrequent consumption of red meats and sweets. Above all, the Mediterranean diet promotes enjoying meals with family and friends, physical activity, and a balanced lifestyle.

Some foods emphasized on the Mediterranean Diet include:

Fruits and Vegetables: These should form the basis of every meal. They provide essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, and a host of beneficial compounds.

Whole Grains: Opt for whole grains instead of refined grain products. They are a great source of fiber and keep you feeling full.

Healthy Fats: Olive oil and nuts are staples in the Mediterranean diet. They contain monounsaturated fats, which are good for heart health.

Fish and Seafood: Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and other fatty fish are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and are a great source of protein.

Poultry and Dairy: Consume moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.

Legumes and Nuts: These are a great source of protein and fiber.

Herbs and Spices: These add flavor and pack a nutrient punch. They’re a healthy alternative to salt.

RELATED: The 14 Healthiest Foods to Eat on a Mediterranean Diet

4 Research-Backed Brain Health Benefits of The Mediterranean Diet

Following the Mediterranean Diet is linked to a slew of health benefits, including better heart health, weight loss, and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. And when it comes to brain health, following this popular diet may offer some pretty impressive benefits, too.

#1 May Reduce The Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Emerging research has linked the Mediterranean diet to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, may lead to improved brain health and a delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s. The key components of the diet — antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids from fish, and healthy fats from olive oil and nuts — have all been associated with brain protection. Regular adherence to the Mediterranean diet can lead to lower inflammation and oxidative stress, two main factors contributing to Alzheimer’s.

#2 May Support Mental Well-Being 

The Mediterranean diet has also demonstrated potential in reducing the risk of depression. Research indicates a correlation between adherence to a Mediterranean diet and lower rates of depressive disorders. This diet, laden with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins, provides essential nutrients contributing to good mental health. Healthy fats from olive oil and nuts are known to boost brain health, promoting better mood regulation. Additionally, the high intake of fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, offers anti-inflammatory benefits, which are crucial in combating depression. In essence, the Mediterranean diet, as part of a balanced lifestyle, can be an effective nutritional strategy in supporting mental well-being. 

#3 May Slow Brain Aging 

Not only does the Mediterranean diet aid in preventing Alzheimer’s and managing depression, but it also shows promise in promoting overall brain health as we age. The nutrient-rich components of the diet, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and healthy fats, contribute to improved cognitive function and brain longevity. High intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, combined with moderate consumption of fish and lean proteins, provides the brain with critical nutrients that help counteract the effects of aging. These dietary components work in tandem to protect neural connections, promote new cell growth, and reduce inflammation, all of which are crucial for maintaining cognitive health. 

#4 May Improve Processing Speed

Processing speed refers to the pace at which the brain captures, interprets, and responds to information. Having healthy processing speed can help you do simple tasks, like recognizing symbols, as well as more complex tasks, like solving math problems. A high processing speed helps a person complete tasks quickly and efficiently, while a slower processing speed may lead to difficulties in keeping up with daily activities or academic work. 

Data shows that following a Mediterranean Diet that includes fresh, lean pork may help improve processing speed

RELATED: 9 Mediterranean Lifestyle Habits That Are Just as Important as Diet

How to Add More Mediterranean-Style Foods to Your Diet 

Incorporating more Mediterranean-style foods in your diet can be achieved through simple and practical steps. Some tips to consider include:

  • Start by increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet and can be included in every meal. 
  • Swap out processed grains for whole grains like brown rice or quinoa. 
  • Try to include a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables for a wide range of nutrients.
  • Consume lean proteins such as fish and poultry, and reduce red meat to a few times a month. 
  • Opt for healthy fats found in olive oil, nuts, and seeds, instead of trans and saturated fats. 
  • Incorporate legumes and beans into your meals for added protein and fiber. 
  • Use herbs and spices to flavor your dishes instead of relying on salt. Following these steps will help you integrate the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle effectively.
  • Eat meals with family and friends instead of alone and/or in front of a screen. 

RELATED: 15 Mediterranean Diet-Inspired Snack Ideas

Mediterranean Diet For Brain Health

There are many factors that play into our brain health, with some being completely out of our control (like our genetics and age). But there are other factors, like our dietary choices, that may positively or negatively affect brain health, depending on what you choose. 

If you are on the hunt for a dietary pattern to follow that may support brain health, the Mediterranean diet will be your best bet. From possibly reducing your risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease to potentially helping you have faster processing speed, the data is quite compelling if you are looking for evidence supporting a link between brain health and following the Mediterranean diet. 

So, try adding some olive oil to your meals, including more plant-based proteins to your dishes, and eating more veggies. Your body, including your brain, will thank you for it.