Mediterranean Diet Prevents Brain Atrophy, Study Finds

Mounting evidence emphasizes the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. New research suggests that the healthful diet helps to preserve brain volume in elderly adults.
[mediterranean diet foods]
A new study suggests that a Mediterranean diet could protect against certain changes to the brain in older age.

More and more studies seem to suggest that components of the Mediterranean diet, either in isolation or taken together, can have a beneficial effect on various aspects of human health.

The “traditional” Mediterranean diet – consisting of large amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, a moderate amount of fish, dairy, and wine, as well as a limited intake of red meat – has been shown to improve cardiometabolic health.

Research ranging from observational studies to randomized trials has shown the diet to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity, aid weight loss, and contribute to the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Other studies have suggested that the diet helps to keep mental and physical health well into old age and can reduce the risk of premature death.

New research published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, looks specifically at the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on brain health in elderly adults.

Examining link between diet and brain volume in elderly people

Researchers led by Michelle Luciano, Ph.D. – from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland – looked at the effects of the Mediterranean diet (MeDi) on total brain volume, gray matter volume, and the thickness of the cortex.

The authors explain that, with age, the human brain shrinks, and more and more of its cells die. This may cause problems with learning and memory.

The study followed 967 people aged between 73 and 76 years, who lived in Scotland and who did not have dementia, over a period of 3 years.

The 967 participants were asked to complete food questionnaires when they were 70 years old – 3 years prior to collecting data on their brain volume.

Then, 562 of these people had a magnetic resonance imaging brain scan at the age of 73, in order to measure total brain volume, gray matter volume, and cortical thickness. Of these, 401 people had a second brain scan at age 76.

People’s dietary habits were calculated using a food frequency questionnaire. The brain measurements were compared with how well the participants adhered to the MeDi during the 3-year period.

Mediterranean diet accounts for 0.5 percent of total brain volume change

The scientists found an association between MeDi adherence and brain volume.

Participants who did not follow the diet closely were likely to develop brain atrophy over the 3-year interval.

More specifically, poor adherence to the diet was associated with a 0.5 percent greater reduction in total brain volume than those who had followed the diet closely.

A 0.5 percent decrease in brain volume is half the size of what is considered a normal decrease due to the natural aging process.

Researchers adjusted for variables that might have influenced the changes in brain volume, including age, education, and health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension.

The study found no association between the diet and gray matter volume or thickness of the cortex.

Contrary to previous studies, this research did not find a relationship between fish and meat consumption and changes in brain volume. This suggests that other individual components of the diet – or all of its components taken in combination – might be responsible for the association.

Additionally, unlike previous research – which measured the brain at one point in time – this study examined changes in brain volume over time.

“In our study, eating habits were measured before brain volume was, which suggests that the diet may be able to provide long-term protection to the brain. Still, larger studies are needed to confirm these results.”

Michelle Luciano, Ph.D.

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Could Eating Whole Grains Extend Your Life?

Recent research, carried out at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts, supports and extends recent findings regarding the benefits of whole grains. The wide-scale study concludes that consuming whole grains regularly could extend our lifespan.
[Whole grains in boxes]
Whole grains are a global staple; recent research demonstrates why.

According to the Whole Grains Council, a whole grain food contains “all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed.”

Examples of whole grains include barley, corn, quinoa, rice, rye, and wheat.

Whole grains naturally contain complex carbohydrates and a raft of beneficial vitamins and minerals, including selenium, potassium, and magnesium; also, whole grains have minimal fat content.

Much of the nutritional value of grains are lost during the refining process.

Findings from previous research infer that foods containing whole grains have a myriad of health benefits. These benefits include a reduced risk of certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, and they are thought to help maintain gut health.

Latest whole grain research

The research team, led by senior author Qi Sun, took an in-depth, large-scale look at dietary whole grains and their impact on longevity and disease.

The team analyzed data from 12 already-published papers, alongside data from unpublished sources – the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III and NHANES 1999-2004. The studies included participants from the United Kingdom, United States, and Scandinavian countries.

In all, the new analysis used data from 786,076 individuals between 1970 and 2010. The meta-analysis showed that, for each 16 gram serving of whole grains, there was a 7 percent decrease in total deaths, a 9 percent decrease in cardiovascular disease-related deaths, and a 5 percent reduction in deaths related to cancer.

The results, published this week in Circulation, showed that the effect was more pronounced as whole grain consumption increased.

Those individuals who ate 48 grams of whole grain per day had a 20 percent reduced risk of mortality, a 25 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality, and a 14 percent lower risk of cancer mortality.

Although the results show an impressive effect size, the authors admit some limitations. For instance, the earlier studies used in the analysis were conducted before a consistent definition of whole grain was designed; therefore, the lists of whole grain foods varied substantially between experiments.

Additionally, the majority of participants were from Scandinavian countries and the U.S., so there is a possibility that the results are not relevant (or less relevant) for other populations.

“These findings lend further support to the U.S. government’s current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggest higher consumption of whole grains to facilitate disease prevention.”

Qi Sun, M.D., Sc.D., senior author

How does whole grain stave off death and disease?

Despite the shortfalls mentioned above, the results are backed up by many previous trials. So, how do whole grains impart their impressive life-extending ability?

There are a number of theories, but the likelihood is that a variety of mechanisms work together to produce the positive health outcomes. For instance, whole grains contain a variety of bioactive compounds, all of which could play their part.

Additionally, the higher fiber content of whole grains may lower the production of cholesterol and glucose. Whole grain’s ability to induce a feeling of fullness might be one of the ways in which it helps stave off obesity and the conditions related to obesity.

However the effects are produced, Dr. Sun believes it is time for healthcare professionals to sing the praises of whole grain foods:

“Based on the solid evidence from this meta-analysis and numerous previous studies that collectively document beneficial effects of whole grains, I think healthcare providers should unanimously recommend whole grain consumption to the general population as well as to patients with certain diseases to help achieve better health and perhaps reduce death.”

Because this study used a huge amount of data and supports earlier research, the results are likely to spawn questions about how diets should be modified. Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, suggests that refined grains should be replaced with whole grain products rather than added to the diet.

Eating Hot Red Chili Peppers May Help Us Live Longer

New research brings some good news for lovers of spicy foods, after finding that eating hot red chili peppers might help to extend lifespan.
[Two red chili peppers]
Consuming hot red chili peppers might reduce mortality risk, say, researchers.

A study of more than 16,000 people in the United States revealed that individuals who consumed red chili peppers had a lower risk of death from all causes over an average of 18 years than those who did not eat the spicy food.

Study co-authors Mustafa Chopan and Benjamin Littenberg, both from the University of Vermont College of Medicine, recently reported their findings in the journal PLOS One.

Chili peppers are the fruits of the Capsicum plant, which belongs to the nightshade family. There are many types of chili pepper, all of which have different heat levels.

In hot peppers, such as jalapeños, the fiery flavor comes from a compound called capsaicin. Studies have suggested that this compound can offer a wealth of health benefits.

A recent study reported by Medical News Today, for example, found that capsaicin might have the potential to halt breast cancer, while an earlier study linked the compound to a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.

According to Chopan and Littenberg, only one previous study – published in The BMJ in 2015 – has investigated how the consumption of spicy foods such as chili peppers can impact death risk. It found a link between regular consumption of such foods and reduced all-cause and cause-specific mortality.

The new study supports this association, after finding that people who eat hot red chili peppers might have a longer lifespan.

All-cause mortality risk 13 percent lower with red chili pepper intake

Chopan and Littenberg reached their findings by analyzing the data of 16,179 adults aged 18 or above who took part in the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey III between 1988 and 1994.

At the point of the survey, participants’ consumption of hot red chili peppers over the past month was assessed using a food frequency questionnaire.

The all-cause and cause-specific mortality of participants were monitored over a median follow-up period of 18.9 years using the National Death Index. During follow-up, 4,946 deaths occurred.

Compared with participants who did not consume hot red chili peppers, those who did were found to be at a 13 percent reduced risk of all-cause mortality.

Because of the relatively small number of deaths in this study, Chopan and Littenberg say that their data on how red chili pepper intake might impact specific causes of death is limited.

Still, the available data suggested that hot red chili pepper consumption was most strongly associated with a reduced risk of death from vascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.

While the researchers are unable the pinpoint the precise mechanisms by which red chili peppers might extend lifespan, the team says that it is likely down to capsaicin, which activities transient receptor potential (TRP) channels.

“Activation of TRP vanilloid type 1 (TRPV1) appears to stimulate cellular mechanisms against obesity, by altering mediators of lipid catabolism and thermogenesis,” the researchers explain. “Protection against obesity leads to decreased risk of cardiovascular, metabolic, and lung diseases.”

“Capsaicin may also defend against heart disease via a TRP-mediated modulation of coronary blood flow,” they add.

New research ‘strengthens generalizability’ of previous findings

Overall, the team says that these latest findings support those of the 2015 study, linking spicy food intake to reduced risk of death by showing “a significant decrease in mortality associated with hot red chili pepper consumption.”

However, Chopan and Littenberg note that the earlier study was only conducted in Chinese adults, so the new research “strengthens the generalizability” of those findings.

The team concludes that:

“Given the observational nature of both investigations, causality can only be suggested, not confirmed. Further studies should aim to investigate the benefits of other spices and differential effects of certain chili pepper subtypes. Such evidence may lead to new insights into the relationships between diet and health, updated dietary recommendations, and the development of new therapies.”

How Does Diet Impact Health?

Atkins? South Beach? The Zone? Trendy diets and nutrition research change almost daily. Still, amidst all the hype, study after study shows that good food choices have a positive impact on health, and poor diets have negative long-term effects. Know the facts:

  1. Americans whose dietary patterns include fresh, whole foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats, and fish have a lower incidence of major chronic disease and especially of diet-related diseases.
  2. Unfortunately, the standard American diet (S.A.D.) is heavy in saturated fats, partially-hydrogenated oils, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed foods.
  3. This diet, in combination with a sedentary lifestyle, large portion sizes, and high stress, is blamed for the increase in obesity and associated diseases in the U.S. (according to the Center for Disease Control, over a third of the U.S. adult population is obese). Diseases associated with obesity include type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, and certain cancers, including breast cancer in women.

Health Benefits of Chia Seeds

Despite their small size, chia seeds are full of important nutrients. They are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to raise HDL cholesterol.

HDL is the “good” cholesterol that protects against heart attack and stroke.

Chia seeds are also rich in antioxidants, and they provide fiber, iron, and calcium.

Remember the chia pets that were popular in the 1990s? Chia seeds are the same small seeds you used to grow an Afro in your Homer Simpson terracotta vase.

This is one of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods.

It will look at the nutritional value of chia seeds and their possible health benefits, how to incorporate more chia seeds into the diet, and any potential health risks.

Nutritional breakdown of chia seeds

chia seeds
Chia seeds are packed full of important nutrients – they are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, a 28-gram, or one-ounce serving of chia seeds contains:

  • 131 calories
  • 8.4 grams of fat
  • 13.07 grams of carbohydrate
  • 11.2 grams of fiber
  • 5.6 grams of protein
  • No sugar

Eating once ounce of chia seeds each day would provide 18 percent of daily calcium needs, 27 percent of phosphorus, 30 percent of manganese, and smaller amounts of potassium and copper.

Compared with flaxseed, chia seeds provide more omega-3s, calcium, phosphorus, and fiber. Most people do not consume enough of these essential nutrients.

Possible health benefits of consuming chia seeds

Plant-based foods have long been associated with a reduced risk of many adverse health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and overall mortality.

Plant-based foods have been shown to support a healthy complexion, increased energy, and overall lower weight.

Chia and the power of fiber

The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Institute of Medicine suggests that men under the age of 50 years should consume 38 grams of fiber per day and women under the age of 50 years should consume 25 grams per day.

For adults over 50 years of age, the recommendation for men is 30 grams per day, and for women, it is 21 grams per day. Most people consume less than half of that recommendation.

The easiest way to increase fiber intake is to eat more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and unprocessed grains. Just one ounce of chia seeds provides 10 grams of fiber, almost half the daily recommendation for a woman over 50 years.

Weight loss

Foods that are high in fiber help people to feel full for longer, and they are usually lower in calories. Increased fiber intake and a high fiber diet have been shown to help with weight loss.

Aside from chia seeds’ fiber content, their high levels of omega-3-fatty acids and alpha-linoleic acid may be useful for weight loss.

However, the evidence is scant. A review, published in the Journal of Obesity, concludes that “there is limited data to suggest the use of chia seeds for weight loss.”

Another study, published in Nutrition Research, concludes that, in overweight adults, chia seeds have “no influence on body mass or composition or various disease risk factor measures.”

Treating diverticulosis

High-fiber diets have been shown to decrease the prevalence in flare-ups of diverticulitis by absorbing water in the colon and making bowel movements easier to pass.

Eating a healthful, fiber-filled diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables can reduce pressure and inflammation in the colon.

The exact causes of diverticular disease are not known, but the condition has repeatedly been associated with a low fiber diet.

Cardiovascular disease and cholesterol

Increased fiber intake has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

A review of 67 separate controlled trials found that even a modest 10-gram per day increase in fiber intake reduced LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, as well as total cholesterol.

Recent studies have shown that dietary fiber may play a role in regulating the immune system and inflammation. In this way, it may decrease the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

Diabetes

High-fiber diets are associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes. Eating high-fiber meals helps to keep blood sugar stable.

Based on a review of findings from several large studies, The National Institute of Medicine found that diets with 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories were associated with significant reductions in the risk of both coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Digestion and detox

A diet with adequate fiber prevents constipation and promotes regularity for a healthy digestive tract. Regular bowel movements are crucial for the daily excretion of toxins through the bile and stool.

Omega-3s to fight heart disease

Research suggests that omega-3s can decrease the risk for thrombosis and arrhythmias, disorders that can lead to heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death.

Omega-3s may also decrease LDL, total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reduce atherosclerotic plaque, improve endothelial function, and slightly lower blood pressure.

The richest sources of plant-based omega-3s are chia seeds, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, hemp seed oil, and walnuts.

How to incorporate more chia seeds into your diet

Chia seeds are relatively easy to find in any major grocery store. They are black in color and they have a mild, nutty flavor.

chia seed parfait
Chia seeds can be eaten raw, or cooked and added to yogurt, cereal, and smoothies.

Raw, they can be sprinkled on cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, or smoothies. They can also be eaten cooked, added to baked goods like bread and muffins.

In vegan baking, they can replace eggs. To use them as an egg substitute in baking, try mixing 1 tablespoon of chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water, then let them sit for a few minutes. A gel will form that can be used instead of eggs in baking.

Follow these links to find some recipes that use chia:

Potential health risks of consuming chia seeds

Chia seeds can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water.

One man with a history of swallowing problems developed an esophageal obstruction after he ate a tablespoon of dry chia seeds and then tried to wash them down with a glass of water.

The seeds formed a thick gel in his esophagus that he was unable to swallow without medical treatment.

This case was a rare case, but it highlights the importance of mixing chia seeds into another food or liquid before consuming, especially for people with a history of swallowing problems. Small children should not be given chia seeds.

To prevent disease and achieve good health, it is better to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods, rather than concentrating on individual foods.