The Mediterranean diet is back in vogue, and this time we want to know even more about what it has to offer.
As far back as the 1940s, the rest of the Western world noticed that people in southern Europe lived longer and healthier lives, with lower rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease, in part because of what they did and didn’t eat. The role of olive oil and red wine grabbed the headlines, but even more important was the high intake of fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes rather than red meat.
It was, in fact, a lifestyle-related way of eating rather than a “diet” in the way we use that word today, but it brought about a change of thinking about the link between food and health – and made many people start to eat differently. “It is realistic and enjoyable approach to eating that appears to be less limiting than other diets,” said Dr Karen Murphy, a Senior Research Fellow and Dietitian within ARENA.
Unfortunately, a wave of new and increasingly less conventional diets began to appear, grabbing the attention of those looking for a quick fix that did not require them to make too many changes. But now the wheel has come full circle. The Mediterranean diet is “pretty fancy again” and researchers are working to pin down the specifics of what works on what and why.
A major trial involving 7,500 people in Spain will provide the top-level evidence, but Dr Murphy and colleagues have been funded by the NHMRC to investigate the role and value of a Mediterranean diet in an Australian context. Their three-year, randomised control trial of 140 men and women will specifically look at how it potentially can impact on cognitive performance.
“We’re looking at cardiovascular health – at risk factors including blood vessel function in the body and the brain, which is how well blood vessels can contract and relax, which is important for cardiovascular health and possibly cognitive performance,” Dr Murphy said.
“But we’re also interested to see if improving cardiovascular health improves cognitive function. If you improve how elastic the blood vessels are in your body as well as in your brain that increases the flow of nutrients and oxygen to your brain to help you improve memory and maybe reduce cognitive decline later on.”
Preliminary results from a small group of the study show the “Mediterranean diet improved blood flow to the brain” when assessed using ultrasound. The aim is to produce results that can be used as high level evidence. “We want to do a trial that confirms that the diet is beneficial in an Australian population and can then be used as evidence for healthy dietary patterns for dietary guideline recommendations,” Dr Murphy said.
The challenge, as always, will be to get people to take notice of good (and scientifically proven) advice and make changes that will positively affect their present and future health. Dr Murphy fears even something as mainstream as a Mediterranean diet can prove too challenging or culturally different in the long-term for some people who are wedded to different eating patterns, but she’s encouraged by early results.
“Results from our trial show that 92% of the people involved were able to comply with the diet we set for the full six months,” she said. “That shows that it is feasible and sustainable.”