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Can what you eat keep you sharp?

Make an impact with a
Mediterranean diet

Everybody’s brain shrinks with age. (How many of you knew that?) But a new study suggests that a Mediterra­nean-style diet, rich in fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, legumes and olive oil, may reduce brain loss—a lot. The study, published in January in Neurology, followed about 400 Scottish people in their 70s. It found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet had less brain loss than those who didn’t, and about half as much brain loss as would normally be expected at their age. A bigger brain makes you more resistant to dementia and other brain diseases. That makes the Mediterranean diet a pretty smart choice.

This study wasn’t the first to suggest that healthy eating can protect the brain from the effects of aging. Other studies have found a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia among people who eat a healthy Mediterranean-style diet. As a bonus, the Mediterranean diet also has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, stroke, depression, obesity and some cancers—and to longer life.

One final plug: It’s real. No one made it up to sell you anything. This is the way people in the Mediterranean have eaten for hundreds of years. If all of this sounds good to you, here are four ways to eat more like a Mediterranean.

Get serious about vegetables

Keep trying to eat more vegetables and fruits; they really are that important. In Greece, people eat about nine servings daily. Having a big salad full of greens and veggies is a great way to get several servings at once. Eat a fresh salad every day, plus a piece of fruit at breakfast and lunch.

Put plants front and center

Mediterranean meals center less on meat and more on plant foods like whole grain pilafs and pastas, legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas), nuts, seeds and fresh produce. Many beans, grains and nuts are high in protein, making meat less necessary. Ask your friends for their favorite lentil or bean soup recipes. Keep walnuts and almonds handy for quick snacks.

Go for surf (and sky) more than turf

If you do eat animal protein, make fish and poultry your top choices. Eat red meat less often, and choose lean cuts and small portions (about three to four ounces).

Cook and dress with healthy oils

Healthy fats, such as olive and canola oil, help keep the arteries that feed your brain and heart running free and clear. When cooking, choose these instead of saturated fats like butter and shortening. For salads, try a traditional Mediterranean vinaigrette instead of bottled blue cheese.

EASY GREEK SALAD

Greek salad is a classic Mediterranean dish and a smart choice for your brain. Literally every ingredient in this recipe helps keep your brain healthy, including protective carotenoids in tomatoes, anti-inflammatory fisetin in cucumbers, memory-preserving polyphenols in olive oil and brain-boosting B12 in feta cheese.

Feel free to put your own spin on this salad. Don’t like onions? Leave them out. Have some leftover green beans? Toss them in. Looking to boost protein? Add some chickpeas or chicken.

  • 6 romaine lettuce leaves, torn
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled and sliced
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sliced red onion
  • 1/4 cup kalamata olives, whole or sliced
  • 1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine veggies and feta in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together oil, lemon juice, oregano and salt. Toss veggies with dressing.

Per one-cup serving:
88 calories, 8 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat), 4 grams carbs, 1 gram fiber and 2 grams protein*

*To boost the protein and make this a main course, just add a can of chickpeas or tuna, a cup of quinoa or some chopped chicken.

Recipe adapted from ChooseMyPlate.com.