Unless you’ve been living without print or electronic media for the past several years, you’ve heard of the Mediterranean Diet. It focuses on the use of olive oil for cooking and in salads, lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, some cheese and yogurt, and plenty of fatty fish, with less red meat and butter.
Full disclosure: I pretty much grew up on this diet, but it wasn’t “Mediterranean” then. It was just how we ate, strongly influenced by my mother’s family – the Greek side – and especially her father. He caught his own salmon as often as possible, used olive oil by the gallon, and cracked nuts in the shell after dinner to eat with dried fruit. His family came from Crete, where the diet is said to have originated. He felt it was healthy to eat this way, but it was also his culture.
Fast forward to a few years in the past and the PREDIMED project, a huge multicenter trial that basically divides people into three groups: two groups counseled to follow the Med Diet supplemented with either olive oil or nuts (a combination of almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts), and a control group advised to follow a general low-fat diet. The diet was so successful at reducing heart disease risk that it was stopped early so the control group could partake of the Med Diet benefits.
Beyond Healthy Hearts
The researchers also looked into the effects of the diet on memory. A just-published study, a subset of the PREDIMED trials, used the same diet but then tested global cognitive function, memory performance, and a composite of frontal functions, both at the beginning of the study and after the end of the 5-year period.
Here’s the boil-down: compared with the control group, those on the Med diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil performed better on both frontal and global composite scores, and subjects on the Med diet supplemented with nuts did better on memory composite tests.
What Do I Like About the PREDIMED Research?
The dietary intervention was simple and easy for anyone to implement. The extra-virgin olive oil subjects replaced about two tablespoons of butter and other oils for a similar amount of olive oil or an ounce of nuts. It’s about as easy as any dietary change is going to get. This study didn’t give specific calorie advice per se or put people on weight-loss diets. Even chocolate was allowed as long as it’s the dark stuff.
The Med Diet does get a thumbs up from the recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report. This group also endorsed the DASH diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – that centers on lots of fruits and vegetables and three servings a day of low-fat dairy (although you also get about four ounces of cheese a week). Dairy foods aren’t a huge part of the Med Diet, and the diet can be low in calcium and vitamin D. Culturally it wasn’t a part of my grandparents’ diets, but maybe it should have been – both had osteoporosis.
The “MediterDASHean Diet”
No connection to Kim here. This is my idea of combining the best of both diets. My grandparents might have done better with this diet – they both lived to an old age but had severe osteoporosis, one with hip fractures and all – because it combines the strengths of both endorsed diets. My grandfather would probably approve – he spent many years as a dairy farmer just south of San Francisco.
He wouldn’t approve of swapping out nuts for nut milk alternatives, though. An almond glass doesn’t actually contain many almonds. Crushed almonds, at an ounce a day, would be better.
As for olive oil, it could probably be replaced by canola oil, which is also loaded with monounsaturated fats — but the flavor isn’t there. Better to save it for foods and dishes where the olive oil flavors are less useful (this is just a personal opinion, so no emails on that, please).
Bottom line: this latest research underscores that there may be benefits beyond heart health of a diet that includes a modest amount of olive oil and/or nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts on a daily basis. I can hear my grandparents yelling that they didn’t need researchers to tell them about how good it was.