The Mediterranean diet: setting things straight

This post is also available in Dutch.

People are excited about the many benefits of the so-called “Mediterranean diet”. But what is in fact a Mediterranean diet and how does it affect your brain? This blog can help.

“We are what we eat.” Despite how cliché it sounds, it’s no less true. Our diet has a huge impact on us, and our society is increasingly aware of that. We all know that having a healthy diet today can reduce our chances of having acute or chronic diseases in the future (e.g., diabetes or stroke). But it can do much more than that! We are starting to find that a good diet can also lead to a better mood and improved cognitive performance.

But what does the ideal healthy diet look like? That’s the question scientists have been trying to answer by testing different formulas that can improve our wellbeing. Sometimes these formulas rely on the consumption of a specific ingredient. Other times researchers elaborate diets exclusively consisting of a set of selected ingredients and address how these combinations as a whole lead to improvements. One combination, more than others, has consistently led to (in)numerous benefits: the Mediterranean diet.

The ingredients and benefits of the Mediterranean diet

When researchers talk about the Mediterranean diet, they refer to ingredients traditionally used in Mediterranean countries:

  1. Many plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, and unprocessed cereals;
  2. Limited consumption of dairy products, except yoghurt and cheese;
  3. Fish in moderate quantities, but red and processed meat are definitely avoided;
  4. A special preference for non-saturated fats such as those in olive oil, instead of the saturated fat that is found in butter.
Olive oil is one of the most essential ingredients of the Mediterranean diet.
Image courtesy of Couleur on Pixabay (CC0 1.0).

Many studies following this definition have shown that embracing the Mediterranean diet increases our chances of living longer, while reducing the risk for multiple cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, or even neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia.

We know well how the nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet are absorbed by our blood and can be better handled by our cardiovascular system than unhealthier nutrients. However, it’s harder to understand how our mental health can benefit from this diet. It’s true that people adhering to a Mediterranean diet show not only less risk for dementia, but also better cognitive performance. The question is “how?”…

Researchers from the Donders Institute are convinced that the link between diet and the brain is bridged by the trillions of microorganisms that populate our intestine, which scientists refer to as gut microbiota. There is growing evidence that the physiological actions of these microbiota can affect the brain, and vice-versa. And because they live in the intestine, they are subjected to and shaped by the diet that we ingest. Our colleagues are currently working on how the gut microbiota interact with the Mediterranean diet in comparison to the more standard diets we have, and trying to understand how that can have a positive influence on brain function in health and disease.  

Made in a Mediterranean country doesn’t necessarily mean Mediterranean diet

The list of ingredients used in Mediterranean diet studies is mainly inspired by the food habits of many Mediterranean cultures back in the 1960’s. It was during that era that the first signs of globalization started to enter these countries and introduced these populations to not-so-healthy food habits, such as the increasing consumption of meat, saturated fat, or carbohydrates. So even if you’re eating a Mediterranean dish nowadays, that may not necessarily mean that you’re following the Mediterranean diet. It all depends on which ingredients are included.

A tasty but super unhealthy example of that can be found in Oporto, Portugal: the Francesinha (literal translation: “Little French lady/girl”). It consists of a sandwich containing different kinds of meat, covered with cheese and a fried egg on top, and it covered in a delicious red-orange sauce, as you can see in the picture below.

Can you imagine that, beneath this thick layer of egg and cheese, there’s a mega sandwich full of meat?! That’s the Francesinha.
Image courtesy of WordRidden on Flickr (CC0 1.0).

This dish was first seen during the 1950’s, inspired by the French croque-monsieur. Since then it grew to become one of the most typical dishes that Oporto can serve… and one of the tastiest! But with a Francesinha you follow almost none of the Mediterranean diet guidelines: there’s a lot of red meat, bread, and saturated fat. No sign of vegetables in there!

So, if your goal is to embrace the Mediterranean diet, all you have to do is to follow the list of ingredients. You can enjoy its benefits either here in the Netherlands during your staycation, or in any of the Mediterranean countries you’re visiting this year. Either way, don’t forget to enjoy the Mediterranean diet while following the safety measures recommended in the area you’re in.

Original language: English
Author: João Guimarães
Buddy: Felix Klaassen
Editor: Monica Wagner
Translator: Ellen Lommerse
Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Credits: Top image courtesy of João Fructuosa and Pixabay (CC0 1.0).

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