In a world dominated by celebrity fad diets that range from absurd, like Reese Witherspoon's alleged "baby-food diet," to absurdly unaffordable, such as the R2,700 "moon dust"-infused smoothie that Gwyneth Paltrow drinks, many people don't believe there's a single best diet for your health.
But a growing body of research suggests that a meal plan focusing on vegetables, protein, and healthy fats has key benefits for losing weight, keeping your mind sharp, and protecting your heart and brain as you age.
This type of eating regimen is called by many names and comes in different iterations, from "plant-based" to "Mediterranean." Some people on the diet eat eggs and dairy, meat and fish, or all of the above; others are vegetarian and abstain from meat and animal products altogether.
At its core, however, most of these meal plans are very similar and have two main characteristics: they are rich in vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats and low in heavily processed foods and refined carbohydrates like white bread.
In its annual diet ranking, US News and World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet as the best one to follow in 2019. (The plan was ranked at the top last year, too.)
Evidence supporting that recommendation can be found in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of Gerontology, in which scientists analyzed six recent studies on the Mediterranean diet and found that the eating regimen is closely linked with a variety of beneficial outcomes. Positive impacts include healthy aging, better mobility, a lower risk of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, and improved cognitive functioning.
A study presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference last January also took a deep dive into the potential benefits of two Mediterranean-style eating plans. The study looked at how the MIND diet (a version of the Mediterranean plan that focuses on "brain-healthy" foods) can slow cognitive decline.
Eating like you live on the coast of Naples or Athens sounds intuitively appealing. Meals could include fresh fish, vegetables drizzled in olive oil, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
Recent research suggests that diets like these, which are also low in processed foods and red meat, are great for your brain and body - both in the near-term and into older age.
To keep your energy levels up and help you feel healthy in the long term, your diet needs to feed more than your stomach.
It has to satiate your muscles, which crave protein; your digestive system, which runs best with fiber; and your tissues and bones, which work optimally when they're getting vitamins from food.
A plant-based diet's combination of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats accomplishes that goal.
This balance is also key to keeping you full after a meal and energized throughout the day so you don't feel the need to overeat, Nichola Whitehead, a registered dietitian in the UK, previously told Business Insider.
"You need to have a balanced meal - things like whole grains, fiber, and vegetables - in order to sustain your blood sugar. Empty calories [like white bread or white rice] give a temporary fix," she said.
But plant-based diets aren't just good for the body - they have key benefits for the mind as well.
The MIND diet is catching researchers' eyes for its potential to benefit people who've survived a stroke.
Just like the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet emphasizes vegetables, seafood, olive oil, and wine. It puts added focus on green leafy veggies, berries, beans, whole grains, and poultry. Adherents to both plans limit or eliminate processed foods, pastries, sweets, anything fried, red meat, cheese, butter, and margarine.
In people who've survived a stroke - a severe episode that doubles the risk of developing dementia - the MIND diet may help slow cognitive decline, according to the study mentioned above. That finding builds on the conclusions from research published in 2017 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and jibes with the series of six studies highlighted in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of Gerontology.
For the study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers looked at data from close to 6,000 older adults. Participants were asked about their diet and the types of foods they ate or did not eat. Then researchers measured their memory and attention skills using reliable tests like word lists and backward counting exercises.
The researchers compared the participants' diets to how they performed on the cognitive tests. Those whose eating plans lined up with Mediterranean and MIND-style diets did significantly better than those on other types of diets.
In fact, the more closely aligned people's diets were with a Mediterranean-style plan, the lower their risk of scoring poorly on the brain tests.
"These findings lend support to the hypothesis that diet modification may be an important public health strategy to protect against neurodegeneration during aging," Claire McEvoy, the lead author of the paper and a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, wrote in the paper.
Researchers still aren't sure why these type of eating plans appear to be so beneficial for the brain, but they have some clues.
Both diets are rich in antioxidants and two types of healthy fat: monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. Previous studies have found a link between these ingredients and a reduced risk of dementia, as well as higher cognitive performance.
The green vegetables and berries emphasized in the MIND diet have also been shown to help protect against progressive loss of the structure or function of brain cells. This loss, known as neurodegeneration, is a key characteristic of diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
So if your New Year's resolution is to eat healthier or lose weight, the Mediterranean plan is worth a try. It may not even feel like you're dieting at all.
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