It’s a well-known fact: the Mediterranean Diet slows brain aging and cognitive decline, slashes the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Now, research links this traditional eating plan with immediate improvements in cognitive performance—and not just for seniors. Several studies show adhering to a Mediterranean Diet enhances current cognitive functioning in people between the ages of 19 and 40, with improvements in long-term memory, attention, recall, language skills, visual constructs and executive function—mental skills that include working memory and flexible thinking. Other research shows starting the Mediterranean diet earlier in life increases cognitive performance during midlife and significantly slows mental decline.
Based on the traditional eating patterns of people in Greece, Southern Italy and Spain, key components of the diet include abundant fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and healthy fats (primarily olive oil), with small amounts of dairy, minimal red meat and low-to-moderate alcohol consumption—mainly red wine. But just adding garlic to your burgers or eating chips cooked in olive oil won’t work; research shows the combination of Mediterranean-specific foods, rather than single ingredients or nutrients, offers the most benefits. Protect your brain from the effects of aging, and get smarter right now, with seven simple ways to go more Mediterranean.
1. Double down on produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables (lots and lots of them) are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean eating plan. They’re rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds and other nutrients, and research overwhelmingly supports the brain-protective benefits of a produce-heavy diet. Most studies show the greatest benefits when fruit and vegetable servings were doubled—on average, four servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables every day. Work produce into every meal, including breakfast (berries and greens smoothies, veggie-centric omelets). Pack five servings of vegetables into a ginormous lunch salad; at dinner, elevate vegetables from supporting actors to starring roles—think eggplant and zucchini casseroles, cauliflower rice bowls layered with roasted roots and greens, chickpea curry with a multitude of veggies.
2. Be more vegan. Heavy consumption of meat, especially red meat, is linked with lower cognitive performance, including reasoning ability and memory. The Mediterranean Diet limits animal protein (except fish) to several servings a week, red meat to a few times a month. Minimize animal protein, and make legumes—rich in antioxidants and brain-protective nutrients—your primary protein. When you do eat meat, choose only lean, organic, pasture-raised and/or grass-fed versions, and use it like a condiment; add small amounts of chicken or turkey to bean stews, green salads or veggie-centric stir-fries.
3. Change your oil. Too much dietary fat, especially saturated fat, increases the risk of dementia; some research shows excess saturated fat impairs memory and learning in women between the ages of 25 and 45. Olive oil, the main cooking and seasoning oil in the Mediterranean Diet, is high in monounsaturated fats, linked with greater general intelligence (including attention-demanding tasks and everyday problem solving) in even in younger populations. Olive oil is also loaded with antioxidants and other brain-protective nutrients. Avocados, olives, seeds and nuts are also rich in monounsaturated fat, plus antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
4. Kick your sugar addiction. It’s bad for your brain, and studies associate excessive consumption of sugar with cognitive deficits and memory impairments, even in younger populations. Feed your sweet tooth with whole fruit, especially berries, cherries, peaches, mangos, pomegranates and red grapes. They’re packed with antioxidants that slow brain aging, and research suggests a higher intake of whole fruits also improves cognitive function and memory in younger populations. Add berries to your morning smoothie, and, snack on cherries or grapes instead of sugary treats, serve blackberries and pomegranate seeds for dessert.
5. Eat (the right kind of) fish. The primary source of animal protein in the Mediterranean Diet, fish and seafood are a good catch: they’re rich in protein, plus brain-protective nutrients like selenium, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fats, shown to minimize inflammation and enhance cognitive performance. But neurotoxins—mercury, heavy metals and other contaminants—in seafood and fish are linked with neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline. Choose the right kinds; steer clear high-mercury varieties (mackerel, albacore tuna, swordfish, grouper) and emphasize cleaner options like sardines, salmon, rainbow trout, oysters and shrimp. If you don’t eat seafood, get your omega-3s with a vegan-friendly algae oil supplement.
6. Shake your salt habit. Sodium impacts blood vessels in the brain, and excessive dietary salt intake is linked with neurotoxicity and cognitive impairment. Instead of salt: fill your shaker with a pungent combo of garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper and dried herbs. Amp up flavor with fresh herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary and parsley—rich in phenolic compounds and flavonoids shown to protect the brain from damage. And season meals abundantly with garlic; it’s high in compounds that reduce cholesterol, a key factor in cognitive impairment and memory loss.
7. Upgrade your pasta. Skip the heavy cream sauces and layers of gooey cheese, and serve this Mediterranean staple the traditional (healthier) way. Start with whole-grain or gluten-free versions, or choose pasta made with legumes for added nutrients and protein. Make tomato sauce—rich in lycopene and other antioxidants that protect the brain—with loads of garlic, plus olive oil; studies show cooking tomatoes with oil makes lycopene more available to the body. Add abundant vegetables, high in fiber to offset potential blood spikes shown to impact brain function. And top your pasta with a light sprinkling of shaved or shredded cheese; with sharp, intensely flavored varieties like parmesan, Asiago or Pecorino-Romano cheese, you only need a little.
8. Eat less. Overeating increases the risk of memory loss and cognitive impairment (and it’s just bad for your body in general). Limiting food intake benefits the brain, and research suggests caloric restriction induces neurogenesis—the process by which new neurons are formed—and enhances the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new information. To minimize calories without skimping on essential nutrients, focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods rich in brain-protective antioxidants, and trim serving sizes. And eat mindfully; having lunch at your computer or dinner in front of the television promotes overeating. Dine with family or friends; studies show sharing meals with others encourages slower eating, naturally lessens caloric consumption.