Cheating on your diet can make your brain age faster, wipe out cognitive benefits

New study shows that people who stick to the Mediterranean diet have brains which are six years “younger” than those who follow a traditional Western diet.

CHICAGO, Ill. — Usually when someone cheats on their diet, it means they won’t be losing weight any time soon. A new study finds those cheating on the Mediterranean diet won’t be getting its positive effects on the brain either. Researchers from Rush University Medical Center say adding in unhealthy foods common in the Western diet cancels out the ability of a Mediterranean diet to slow down cognitive decline.

“Eating a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains may positively affects a person’s health,” says Puja Agarwal, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine in a university release. “But when it is combined with fried food, sweets, refined grains, red meat and processed meat, we observed that the benefits of eating the Mediterranean part of the diet seems to be diminished.”

Although researchers say the Mediterranean diet can improve the health of eaters of any age, older adults also benefit from slower rates of mental decline. The study examined over 5,000 Chicago residents over the age of 65 from 1993 to 2012. Every three years, participants completed cognitive tests to see how their basic thinking and memory skills were faring. The group also reported on how often they ate 144 different foods.

The study then looked at how closely each participant followed the classic Mediterranean diet; which includes fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish, potatoes, cereals, and moderate amounts of wine. From there, researchers assessed how many items from a typical Western diet each person added to their daily meals. This includes fried foods, refined grains, red and processed meats, full-fat dairy products, and sweets.

Mediterranean diets can keep the mind cognitively younger

When measuring these diets against each person’s cognitive tests, the results reveal participants who closely stick to the Mediterranean diet experience the slowest rates of cognitive decline. These seniors also limited how many foods in the Western diet they ate.

Researchers report participants enjoying more items from the Western diet saw no cognitive benefits from eating healthy foods. On average, people sticking to the Mediterranean diet have brains which are almost six years younger than their peers on a Western diet.

“Western diets may adversely affect cognitive health,” Agarwal reports. “Individuals who had a high Mediterranean diet score compared to those who had the lowest score were equivalent to being 5.8 years younger in age cognitively.”

The report did not find any significant differences based on a participant’s age, sex, race, or education level. Researchers also adjusted for the smoking habits and body mass indexes of the seniors. The results remained constant after factoring this information in.

“The more we can incorporate green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, olive oil, and fish into our diets, the better it is for our aging brains and bodies. Other studies show that red and processed meat, fried food and low whole grains intake are associated with higher inflammation and faster cognitive decline in older ages,” Agarwal concludes. “To benefit from diets such as the Mediterranean diet, or MIND diet, we would have to limit our consumption of processed foods and other unhealthy foods such as fried foods and sweets.”

The study appears in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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