People who follow the Mediterranean diet not only benefit from a leaner and healthier body but also experience better protection for their brains against aging, according to a new study from Columbia University.

While earlier studies have examined the link between the Mediterranean diet and a reduction in the risk of developing degenerative brain diseases, the new research focused on the potential benefits of the fruit and vegetable-rich diet in preventing the loss of brain cells in elderly people.

"Among cognitively healthy older adults, we were able to detect an association between higher adherence to a Mediterranean type diet and better brain measures," Yian Gu, lead author of the study, said.

The researchers discovered that individuals who follow an eating program based on the Mediterranean diet had larger brain volume totals and more white and gray brain matter compared to people who do not practice the diet.

Brain scans of dieters also showed that their higher intake of fish and lower consumption of meat have also led to more gray matter volumes for their brains.

Gu and colleagues concluded that individuals who did not practice the Mediterranean diet experience effects similar to five years of aging compared to those who adhered to the fruit and vegetable-rich eating program.

How to Start a Mediterranean Diet

Inspired by the cooking styles of people living around the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean diet allows followers to benefit from eating healthier food options rich in vitamins and minerals but with enhanced flavors courtesy of olive oil. Some dieters also include a glass of red wine with their meals.

The key to the eating program is to increase the intake of fish, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, while reducing the intake of unhealthy fats. Dishes that use variations of these ingredients can help reduce heart disease risk and brain aging.

Here are four easy-to-prepare dishes that incorporate many aspects of the Mediterranean diet.

1. Creamy Panini

This healthy sandwich blends fresh ingredients filled with nutrients such as black olives and red peppers that help build immunity against illness. The combination of olive oil, cheese and mayo makes sure this dish is still flavorful and filling even without meat.

2. Hummus

Mediterranean cuisine also makes use of beans in order to provide people with their dietary allowance of fiber. Snacking on hummus instead of the typical junk food can help give them that required fiber through garbanzo beans.

3. Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Another way to secure your necessary dietary fiber is by consuming Mediterranean pasta made with resistant starch. The natural fibers included in this dish help the body burn as much as 25 percent more calories every day.

The artichoke hearts and peas of this pasta salad add another 8 grams of fiber for every serving.

4. Mediterranean Halibut Sandwich

Fish figures prominently in many Mediterranean diet recipes as they make good sources of lean proteins. They also contain monounsaturated fats that help increase HDL, or good cholesterol, in the body while reducing LDL, or bad cholesterol.

Mediterranean halibut sandwich is rich in protein. Halibut meat also contains the antioxidant selenium, which helps regulate the function of the thyroid gland.

The findings of the Columbia University study are featured in the journal Neurology.

Photo: Alfred Low | Flickr 

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