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How to EAT WELL for brain health, with Dr Andrea McGrattan

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a dietitian and I’m currently working as a Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at Newcastle University. My primary role is teaching and supporting nutrition and dietetic students, but I am also actively involved in nutrition and dietetic research.

I’ve been interested in the role of diet and dementia prevention for a long time, exploring the role of individual nutrients and dietary patterns, and how we can develop strategies to support people to change their dietary and lifestyle behaviours – particularly people who are at risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

I’m interested in the field as dementia is a condition that affects many people, and for a long time was thought of as an inevitable part of ageing. But now we know there is a lot that someone can actually do to reduce their risk of developing dementia – and that’s exciting! The fact that I can be part of research that improves lives of the future population is something I find really rewarding.

What are some of the benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet?

It’s something that has been researched for a long time, and there is a large body of research that supports the role of the Mediterranean diet in multiple chronic diseases and increased life expectancy – including the reduction of cardiovascular diseases. More recently, there has been evidence to support the role of the Mediterranean diet in reduced risk of cognitive decline – that’s very much based on similar pathways that are associated with cardiovascular health.

It’s been long-known that ‘what’s good for your heart, is good for your brain’. There is a body of observational evidence that demonstrates an association with increased adherence to a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of this decline. There is a small amount of trial evidence to support that as well. Different mechanisms are involved, and it’s thought that the Mediterranean diet can influence cognitive decline primarily through its effect on inflammation and oxidative stress in the body.

Further research is needed to better understand these mechanisms, particularly the syngeneic effects of combined consumption of these foods. We also need to explore how individuals living in non-Mediterranean countries can be supported to follow this diet and lifestyle pattern.

What are some simple changes to make our diet more Mediterranean?

The Mediterranean diet is part of a lifestyle approach. There’s not one golden bullet that you change and you’re going to follow the Mediterranean diet. It unfortunately doesn’t work like that, it’s the synergism of how it all works together.

What I would always advise is that smaller changes can equal bigger benefits:

  • Changing from saturated fats to mono-unsaturated fats – e.g. choosing an olive oil based spread, and using more olive oil when cooking or as a dressing on salads.

  • Trying to reduce your red meat consumption. If you consume quite a lot of red meat across the week, you’d want to reduce that down to one or two occasions across the week and replace with white meat, fish (primarily oily fish like salmon, herring or mackerel) or using more pulses and beans as a base for meals.

  • Bulking up meals with fruits and vegetables can also help, trying to make them centre of the meal. Choosing fruit as a snack option or bulking up your dinner with vegetables.

  • Also, simple swaps like swapping white bread for a brown, grain variety will increase your intake of wholegrains.

The Mediterranean diet can be summarised in a pyramid, which shows the relative amounts of the different foods that should be consumed within the dietary pattern.

Remember the diet is only one part of a broader Mediterranean lifestyle approach – plenty of physical activity, and social interaction, particularly with meals is recommended.

Is there a recipe book or website you would recommend?

There is a really good resource called Oldways – it’s a non-profit organisation that promotes public health and healthy eating, centred around the Mediterranean diet. They have a whole host of resources and recipes, and it’s all free to download.

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