Health Studies

Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Cognitive Function

The Mediterranean diet has long been studied for its role in heart health and aging, but emerging research suggests that it may also be protective for brain health. In a follow up to the PREDIMED study (where Spanish adults at risk for heart disease were randomly assigned to either a Mediterranean diet with four tablespoons of olive oil daily, a Mediterranean diet with one ounce of nuts daily, or a low fat controlled diet) researchers analyzed the relationship between diet and cognitive function. Of the 334 participants in this study with data on cognitive function, the scientists found that overall brain function significantly improved for both Mediterranean groups over the 4-year experiment, compared with the control group. Specifically, the nuts group significantly improved on tests of memory, while the olive oil group significantly improved on tests of reasoning, planning, and problem solving. This adds to the growing body of research that the Mediterranean diet is an important factor in healthy aging.
JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015 May 11. [Epub ahead of print] (Valls-Pedret C et al.) 

Traditional African Diet May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

Colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the US, affects a greater proportion of African Americans than rural Africans, indicating that diet plays an important role in disease prevention. To see how traditional diets affect risk factors for colon cancer, researchers assigned 20 middle aged African Americans to a traditional, African heritage diet (averaging 55g fiber daily and 16% calories from fat, with foods like mangos, bean soup, and fish) and 20 middle aged rural South Africans to a typical American diet (averaging 12g fiber daily and 52% calories from fat, with foods like pancakes, burgers, fries, and meatloaf). In just 2 short weeks, the African Americans reduced the inflammation of their colons, improved their markers for cancer (including increased levels of butyrate, an anti-cancer chemical), and increased the diversity of their healthy gut bacteria. On the other hand, the rural Africans eating an American diet fared worse, producing more bile acid (a risk factor for colon cancer), while decreasing the diversity of healthy gut bacteria. These results indicate that an African heritage diet can help promote a healthy digestive tract (potentially reducing colon cancer risk), and that rapid improvements can come with a change to healthier foods.
Nature Communications. 2015 Apr 28;6:6342. (O’Keefe SJ et al.)

Leafy Greens Can Keep Your Brain Young

It is no secret that green vegetables are some of the healthiest foods for our bodies, but new research shows that they are also good for our brains. Researchers in Chicago and Boston analyzed the eating patterns and cognitive abilities of over 950 older adults for an average of five years. The scientists found a significant decrease in the rate of cognitive decline for people who ate more green leafy vegetables (like spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens). In fact, people who ate just one to two servings of leafy greens per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who ate none.

Presentation at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology. Boston MA. March 30, 2015.

Med Diet Cuts Heart Disease Risk by Nearly Half

Researchers have given us yet another reason to fill our plates with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, and nuts! A European study followed more than 2,500 Greek adults for over a decade, tracking their medical records, lifestyle habits, and eating patterns. Those who most closely followed the Mediterranean Diet were 47% less likely to get heart disease, regardless of their smoking habits, age, family history, or other lifestyle factors. The scientists estimate that every one-point increase on the Mediterranean Diet score (a measure of how closely participants followed the Mediterranean Diet, on a scale of 1 to 55) is associated with a 3 percent drop in heart disease risk, so every little bit counts. In fact, the researchers found that the Mediterranean Diet was even more protective against heart disease than physical activity!
Presentation at the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session. San Diego CA. March 15, 2015.

Doctors May Not Be Equipped for Diet Counseling

One of the great ironies of the healthcare system is that doctors are often untrained in the most basic of wellness practices: nutrition. In a survey of 236 physicians at a large US medical center (including cardiologists and internal medicine doctors and trainees), fewer than 14% felt adequately trained to discuss nutrition with their patients. Nearly all doctors (90%) recognized the Mediterranean Diet as protective against heart disease, but fewer than half (46%) realized that low-fat diets have not been proven to reduce heart disease risk. Additionally, many doctors had trouble identifying foods high in various nutrients, such as which fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These data highlight the importance of making reliable nutrition resources (specifically those relating to well researched eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet) available to the medical community. (Note: If you’re a healthcare professional who would like to learn more about the Mediterranean Diet, see here.)
Presentation at the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session. San Diego CA. March 15, 2015. 

Plant-Based Diets May Reduce Colorectal Cancer Risk

Colorectal cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality, so learning more about dietary prevention is an important area of research. Scientists at Loma Linda University in California analyzed food patterns and health data from over 77,000 adults for an average of 7 years. After controlling for demographic and lifestyle factors (including age, smoking, physical activity, and family history), the researchers found that those who ate vegetarian diets had an approximately 20% lower risk of colorectal cancer compared with nonvegetarians. Researchers also found that pesco-vegetarians in particular (vegetarians who eat fish) had a much lower risk of colorectal cancer. These results support other studies linking the Mediterranean diet (a plant-based diet that features fish) with a decreased risk for colorectal cancer.
JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015 March 9. [Epub ahead of print] (Orlich MJ et al.)

Peanuts Linked to Lower Mortality Across Different Ethnicities

Nuts and peanuts (technically legumes) are largely recognized as health promoting foods, but experts wondered if these benefits extend across all ethnic groups and income levels. In this study, researchers at Vanderbilt University analyzed nut intake in over 200,000 people, including a large group of Asian men and women in China, and a large group of low-income black and white men and women in the southeastern United States. For those with the highest nut consumption (mostly peanuts), mortality from all causes significantly decreased 17-21%, depending on ethnicity. Death from heart disease specifically (including ischemic heart disease) also significantly decreased across all ethnic groups for those eating the most nuts. The researchers identified this study as “strong evidence that the association of nut/peanut consumption with mortality does not vary by ethnicity “ or income level. Additionally, they conclude that “consumption of nuts, particularly peanuts given their general affordability, may be considered a cost-effective measure to improve cardiovascular health.”
JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015 Mar 2. [Epub ahead of print] (Luu HN et al.)

Cardioprotective Effect of Mediterranean Diet

Ventricular hypertrophy, or the thickening and enlargement of heart ventricles due to the accumulation of scar tissue, is thought to be a root cause of many heart ailments. To investigate how diet relates to this condition, researchers analyzed eating patterns and left ventricular mass (the size of the left ventricle of the heart, where enlargement is most common) of over 1,700 adults without history of heart attack or stroke. The scientists found that those most closely adhering to a Mediterranean Diet had a left ventricular mass that was 4% less than the rest of the study population, a reduction greater than that observed in people with moderate-to-heavy physical activity (another factor that supports heart health). In fact, for each point increase on the Mediterranean Diet Score (0-9), left ventricular mass was 1.98g lower (average left ventricular mass was 189g).
American Journal of Cardiology. 2015 Feb 15;115(4):510-4. (Gardener H et al.)

Plant-based Diets Improve Heart Disease Markers in Overweight Kids

Plant-based diets have proven effective at reducing heart disease markers in adults, but with a large proportion of overweight and obese children, experts wonder if dietary interventions are effective on kids as well. In a small study in the Midwestern US, twenty-eight overweight and obese children (average age = 15) and their parents were assigned to either a plant-based vegan (no animal products at all), no-added fat diet (with only moderate avocado and nuts) or an American Heart Association diet (high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but also includes low fat dairy, some plant oils, lean meat and fish, and permits some refined grains) for four weeks. The plant-based group significantly improved nine different risk factors of heart disease (including improved blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight), while the American Heart Association Diet significantly improved four risk factors.
The Journal of Pediatrics. 2015 Feb 11. [Epub ahead of print] (Macknin M et al.)

Med Diet May Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk by Half

The Mediterranean diet, famous for its link with healthy aging, may also cut the risk for Alzheimer’s. Researchers studied the relationship between eating patterns and Alzheimer’s in 923 retired adults in Chicago over an average of 4.5 years.  The scientists rated participants’ diets based on how closely they adhered to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet (a healthy diet used to treat hypertension that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, and limited sweets and salt) and the MIND diet. The MIND diet is a hybrid Mediterranean-DASH diet that emphasizes foods associated with brain health, including whole grains, green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, and fish. Those most closely following the Mediterranean diet were 54% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia (more than any other diet group). Comparatively, those most closely following the DASH diet were 39% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia. The group most closely following the MIND diet (which shares many similarities with the Med diet) was 53% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia than the group with the lowest MIND diet scores, and even those moderately following the MIND diet were at a 35% lower risk. 

Alzheimer’s and Dementia. 2015 Feb 11. pii: S1552-5260(15)00017-5. [Epub ahead of print] (Morris MC et al.)

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