THE DETAILS: Researchers recruited 712 adults living in New York City and assessed how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet: lots of nuts, legumes, olives, olive oil, fish, and whole grains, a moderate intake of wine, and very little red meat or dairy products. The adults were divided into three groups based on low, medium, or high adherence. Nearly six years after the initial dietary assessment, the adults were given MRI scans, during which the researchers looked for small areas of dead brain tissue that have been linked to thinking problems. They found that those most faithful to a Mediterranean diet had a 36 percent lower chance of having areas of dead brain tissue than those least faithful to the diet. Moderate Mediterranean-dieters had a 21 percent lower chance compared to the least adherent dieters. The association was even stronger in women: The strictest followers of a Mediterranean diet were 45 percent less likely to have dead tissue than the low-adherence group.
WHAT IT MEANS: Add some olive oil to your next salad, rather than shredded cheddar cheese, because when it comes to your diet affecting your brain, it's all about the fat, says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "The type of fat you eat ends up in every cell membrane," she says, and that can either increase or decrease the functioning of cells." Heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like the type found in olive oil, aid the function of cells because they help blood vessels carry more oxygen to the brain, she says. On the other hand, solid saturated fats, like those found in meat and dairy products, cause cell walls to stiffen, and that reduces their ability to feed your brain oxygen.
Want to keep those cells in good working order? It's never too late to start eating like a Greek—or a Turk, or an Italian, or a Lebanese (the Mediterranean diet is incredibly diverse). "As soon as you stop eating as much saturated fat, you're going to do better," Tallmadge says. And the planet benefits too. "Most of these traditional diets come from poor cultures where people were eating what's in their backyard because they couldn't afford lots of meat and cheese," she adds. "People ate what was seasonal and what was local." That's also a good way to cut down on greenhouse-gas–emitting food miles.
The healthiest components of Mediterranean diets are fresh produce, but in order to get healthy fats, you don't have to stick with olive oil or fish. The diet is so diverse, there are lots of other ways to work brain-healthy fats into your diet. Here are some ideas:
• Nuts, beans, and seeds. If you don't like fish, you can get lots of fat from plant sources, and nuts and legumes are great places to start. Chickpeas taste great in any kind of hummus (paired with whole-grain pita squares) or in this recipe for Moroccan Chickpeas and Vegetables with Couscous, which uses seasonal vegetables like sweet potatoes and turnips. Pair that with a simple Green Salad with Nuts and Seeds.
• Fatty fruits and vegetables. Olives contain their own healthy fats, so try them in an Olive Tapenade with raw vegetables. And avocados, in season now in California, may bring Mexico to mind, but they're also considered a part of the Mediterranean diet. Try a simple recipe for guacamole, or swap out your olive oil for avocado oil the next time you cook eggs, which are another good source of protein in Mediterranean diets.
• Lean meats. All animal products are eaten in moderation in the Mediterranean diet, and when it comes to meat, look for the leanest cuts possible, preferably those with just 10 percent fat. Lamb, pork, and goat are all common, so try some Turkish Lamb with Pistachio Couscous or Pork Medallions with Black Olives.