A healthful Mediterranean salad. (Shutterstock) Shutterstock
A healthful Mediterranean salad. (Shutterstock)

The Mediterranean diet is touted as providing significant health benefits. A new study has found that it also may help preserve memory and thinking abilities.

By Tsivya Fox, United With Israel

An analysis of a Global Burden of Disease study, published in April in the medical journal The Lancet, found that Israel had the lowest rate of diet-related deaths worldwide. Now, the American Academy of Neurology medical journal found that a Mediterranean-style diet may help preserve memory and thinking abilities. The study was the largest of its kind.

“Diet is an important, modifiable activity that could help in preserving cognitive functioning in late life,” Dr. Georgiou Tsivgoulis, the study’s lead author from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Athens, Greece, said in a statement. “However, it is only one of several important lifestyle activities that might play a role in late-life mental functioning. Exercise, avoiding obesity, not smoking cigarettes and taking medications for conditions like diabetes and hypertension are also important.”

The Mediterranean diet, which is commonly eaten by Israelis, is high in fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, fish rich in omega-3 fats, lemon, herbs, whole grains and even wine in moderation. The diet is relatively low on red meat, processed and fast foods, sugary pastries, and saturated and trans fats.

Additional studies have suggested that eating the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

The study found that the Mediterranean diet specifically helps the brain function of diabetics. Interestingly, this diet has long been linked to lowering the risk of developing diabetes to begin with.

Another author of the study, Josiemer Mattei, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, replied in an email to Reuters, “A healthy Mediterranean diet… help[s] sustain cognitive function by reducing inflammation and oxidation in the brain.”

The researchers believe that the abundance of whole grains and legumes in the Mediterranean diet may aid in controlling blood sugar and improve cognitive function.

For diabetics, however, the Mediterranean diet appears to provide a wide range of improvements in brain health. Diabetics who stuck with a Mediterranean diet had significant gains in cognitive function, word recognition, and clock drawing skills, which those who did not eat this way did not experience.

However, the brain health benefits of the diet were limited to those able to strictly control their blood sugar levels at the start of the study and those who experienced improvements in blood sugar control during the study. Brain health benefit for those with poorly controlled blood sugar or those whose blood sugar levels worsened during the study did not show cognitive improvement.

In Israel, it is not uncommon to find more traditional residents eating a salad rich in fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Commonly, this “Israeli salad” is accompanied by fresh baked bread spread with hummus, a vegan dish made from protein-rich chickpeas and tehina, a dip made from ground sesame seeds, lemon juice and herbs.

Sesame seeds, for example, provide a wide array of nutrients including copper, manganese, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, molybdenum, vitamin B1, selenium and dietary fiber.

The Lancet analysis reported that only 89 Israelis, out of every 100,000 people, die each year due to a poor diet. To put those impressive findings into perspective, 892 out of 100,000 people in Uzbekistan die yearly from diet-related illnesses, ten times that of Israelis.

The report further noted that a poor diet is now a bigger killer worldwide than smoking.