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 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.
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 in vogue again and researchers are working to pin down the specifics of what works on what and why.
A major trial involving 7500 people in Spain is providing the top-level evidence, but Dr Karen Murphy and colleagues at UniSA 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 166 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,” said Dr Murphy, a Dietitian and Senior Research Fellow with the Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity (ARENA).
“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.”