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The lower rate of heart disease in Mediterranean areas has long been attributed to the local diet in that region of Europe. It may also prevent cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. But what makes up the diet and why is it so good for health?

Reduction in cognitive decline

A large US study has claimed to find an association with consuming a diet close to that in the Mediterranean and a reduction in loss of memory, or cognitive decline.  The study was in a population of patients from an area known as the ‘stroke belt’ in the southern states of America including North and South Carolina and Alabama, named for its high incidence of strokes. This study and others, found a reduction in the incidence of stroke in those with a Mediterranean-style diet.

One of the study investigators Dr. Georgios Tsivgoulis, offers a couple of reasons for the benefits seen in the study.  One is the antioxidant effect of ingredients such as fruit, vegetables and olive oil, and the other is the beneficial effect on blood vessels – which is attributed with preventing stroke.  

A type of dementia (vascular dementia) is associated with damaged blood vessels in the brain, which a Mediterranean diet may protect.  Dr Tsivgoulis commented: 

‘What you eat affects your cardiovascular health, your looks, and your brain cells.’

To benefit most he suggests increasing the amount of fruit and oily fish (such as salmon) eaten, avoid fried food, and add olive oil to salads.

Reduction in cancer, Parkinson’s  and Alzheimer’s

Analysis of over 1.5 million people involved in other studies of the Mediterranean diet showed that it also reduced development of, or death from cancer by 6%, and development of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s by 13%.

How does the Mediterranean diet differ from other diets?

A Mediterranean diet is not low in fat (hence not low calorie)because it contains nuts and olive oil, but the key difference is that the fats in these are unsaturated, which are not harmful to blood vessels, like the saturated fats contained in meat and dairy produce.

The high proportion of fruit, vegetables and beans in the Mediterranean diet, make it high in fibre, which is good for digestive health, and also lowers harmful cholesterol (LDL) levels while raising the ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL). 

Fresh fruit and vegetables also contribute antioxidants to the body, which mop up free radicals (or ‘reactive oxygen species’) which damage blood vessels, causing cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke.

What about alcohol and the Mediterranean diet?

Daily consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine is typical of the Mediterranean diet and a number of studies have concluded that moderate consumption of alcohol may be beneficial.

But it is a difficult area as some people find it hard to limit their consumption. 

In the study, intake of red wine was moderate – less than 5 ounces (148 milliliters) for women, and men aged over 65 years, and no more than 10 ounces (296 milliliters) for men less than 65. Exceeding these limits runs the risk of developing liver disease and certain types of cancer. Obviously if you have a history of, or are at risk of developing alcohol abuse, it would be better not to drink red wine at all.

Speak to your doctor if you are at all unsure about whether you should drink alcohol.