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Eating Well

Spanish Study Shows Olive Oil and Nuts Pack a Brain Healthy Punch

In honor of Mediterranean Diet Month I’d like to highlight an exciting study on the Mediterranean Diet that has been getting lots of press conference recently. For years we’ve known that the basic Mediterranean Diet (lots of salad, fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat, fish, olives, and a small amount of cheese and wine) has been good for heart and brain health and proven to reduce deaths from heart attacks and strokes and lower cholesterol, among other health benefits.

Now, researchers in Spain have discovered that adding two healthy fats to the basic “Mediterranean Diet” each day will boost your brain health even more. In the study, people who consumed extra virgin olive oil and a handful of nuts daily were less likely to show the early signs of dementia than those who stuck to the basic Mediterranean diet. The nuts used in the study were walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts and the olive oil was specifically “extra virgin”.

“Our findings support increasing evidence on the protective effects of the Mediterranean Diet on cognitive function,”Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez of the University of Navarra in Spain and colleagues reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

The study volunteers, aged 55 to 80, were all at high risk of heart disease because of diabetes, a family history of the disease, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels — or they were overweight or smokers. They were randomly assigned to either add more extra-virgin olive oil to their daily diets, a daily handful of the mixed nuts, or just a standard diet with advice to cut fat. Such “randomized” studies are considered more powerful, because people don’t choose which diet to adopt — and so other outside factors don’t interfere with the results.

Maggie Fox, Senior Writer for NBC News interviewed the study author, Mr. Martinez-Gonzalez, and provides a good synopsis of why researchers believe that that adding olive oil and nuts to the diet might protect the brain.

Olive oil and nuts could reduce damaging inflammation, Martinez-Gonzalez said, because they contain monounsaturated fats, which are better for artery health than the saturated fats found in butter, meat and lard. These foods are also high in fiber and vitamin E, as well as minerals. Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Some other studies have suggested that extra virgin olive oil — which is cold-pressed and unrefined — might fight the beta amyloid “plaques” found clogging the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. “A third mechanism may be that an improvement in vascular health leads to better brain blood flow,” Martinez concluded.

In closing, we know that all of the nutrients found in the Mediterranean Diet foods protect against the oxidative damage that can cause heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Various studies have shown little benefit from taking vitamins alone, but this large-scale Spanish study shows that a combination of healthful foods and nutrients does seem to have an effect on overall brain health.

For more information, read the NBC News article

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