Cheating on your diet could speed up brain aging, study reveals
- February 15, 2021
Cheating on your diet could lead to weight gain, but if you follow the Mediterranean diet and switch to unhealthy foods you may also make your brain age faster.
A team from Rush University Medical Center found that adding in foods from the Western diet, such as pizza, sweets and processed meats, reverses the cognitive benefits from the Mediterranean diet.
The study examined more than 5,000 individuals over the age of 65 from 1993 to 2021 and over the course of three years participants were asked to complete cognitive tests and report on how often they ate certain foods.
Researchers recently compiled the data and found those who stuck to the Mediterranean diet had brains that were nearly six years younger than their peers on the Western diet.
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Cheating on your diet could lead to weight gain, but if you follow the Mediterranean diet and switch to unhealthy foods you could make your brain age faster
The Mediterranean diet is inspired by the eating habits of Spain, Italy and Greece, and focuses on consuming more fruit and fish and limiting sugar, dairy and processed foods.
Previous studies have found that it could help keep the mind sharp and reduce frailty in older individuals.
Puja Agarwal, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College, said: ‘Eating a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains may positively affects a person’s health.’
‘But when it is combined with fried food, sweets, refined grains, red meat and processed meat, we observed that the benefits of eating the Mediterranean part of the diet seems to be diminished.’
The Mediterranean diet is inspired by the eating habits of Spain, Italy and Greece, and focuses on consuming more fruit and fish and limiting sugar, dairy and processed foods
Agarwal and his team recruited 5,001 Chicago residents for their study, all of who were over the age of 65.
Researchers conducted the experiment from 1993 through 2012, where each participant completed a cognitive assessment questionnaire that tested basic information processing skills and memory, and they filled out a questionnaire about the frequency with which they consumed 144 food items.
The list of food items from the Mediterranean diet included fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish, potatoes and unrefined cereals, plus moderate wine consumption.
A team from Rush University Medical Center found that adding in foods from the Western diet, such as pizza, sweets and processed meats, reverse cognitive benefits from the Mediterranean diet
Those for the Western diet included fried foods, refined grains, sweets, red and processed meats, full-fat dairy products and pizza.
And each food item was assigned a score ranging from zero to 55.
The researchers then examined the association between Mediterranean diet scores and changes in participants’ global cognitive function, episodic memory and perceptual speed.
EXPLAINED: THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
Consuming more fruit and fish, and fewer sugary drinks and snacks, are the most important aspects of a Mediterranean diet.
- Whole grains
- Fish and meat
- Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil
- Saturated fats, like butter
- Red meat
- Processed foods, like juice and white bread
- A glass of red wine here and there is fine
How you can follow it:
- Eat more fish
- Squeeze more fruit & veg into every meal
- Swap your sunflower oil or butter for extra virgin olive oil
- Snack on nuts
- Eat fruit for dessert
Participants who followed the Mediterranean diet closely showed a slower cognitive decline over the course of the study.
On the other hand, those who ate more of the Western diet had no beneficial effect of healthy food components in slowing cognitive decline.
There was no significant interaction between age, sex, race or education and the association with cognitive decline in either high or low levels of Western diet foods.
The study also included models for smoking status, body mass index and other potential variables such as cardiovascular conditions and findings remained the same.
‘Western diets may adversely affect cognitive health,’ Agarwal said.
‘Individuals who had a high Mediterranean diet score compared to those who had the lowest score were equivalent to being 5.8 years younger in age cognitively.’
Agarwal said that the results complement other studies showing that a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes and also support previous studies on Mediterranean diet and cognition.
The study also notes that most of the dietary patterns that have shown improvement in cognitive function among older adults, including the Mediterranean, MIND, and DASH diets, have a unique scoring matrix based on the amount of servings consumed for each diet component.
‘The more we can incorporate green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, olive oil, and fish into our diets, the better it is for our aging brains and bodies,’ Agarwal said.
‘Other studies show that red and processed meat, fried food and low whole grains intake are associated with higher inflammation and faster cognitive decline in older ages.’
‘To benefit from diets such as the Mediterranean diet, or MIND diet, we would have to limit our consumption of processed foods and other unhealthy foods such as fried foods and sweets.’