People with diabetes may have better brain function if they follow a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits and vegetables, beans and lentils, whole grains, fish and heart-healthy fats, suggests a new U.S. study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
Mediterranean diets have long been linked to better heart and brain health as well as a lower risk of developing diabetes. But, so far, research hasn’t offered a clear picture of whether any cognitive benefits of eating this way might differ for people with and without diabetes.
The foods in a Mediterranean diet include nutrients and phytochemicals that help maintain cognitive function by reducing inflammation and oxidation in the brain.
These benefits may help people whether or not they have diabetes. When people do have diabetes, however, the abundance of whole grains and legumes in a typical Mediterranean diet may help keep blood sugar well controlled and improve cognitive function.
About the study
For the study, the researchers followed 913 participants for two years, assessing their eating habits, testing for type 2 diabetes, and administering a series of tests for cognitive function, memory and executive function. (Executive function includes mental processes involved in planning, problem solving and multi-tasking.)
The researchers scored participants’ eating habits based on how much they consumed of the main foods that make up a Mediterranean diet, plus how much they ate of foods typically included in two other types of heart-healthy diets, including the well-studied DASH diet which has been proven to lower blood pressure.
Among people without diabetes, more closely following a Mediterranean diet was associated with memory improvements during the study period, but not with changes in other types of cognitive function. For these participants, the other two heart-healthy diets were both tied to better cognitive function.
Mediterranean diet offers range of cognitive benefits for those with diabetes
For diabetics, however, the Mediterranean diet was associated with a wide range of improvements in brain health. People with diabetes who more closely followed a Mediterranean diet had bigger gains in cognitive function, word recognition, and clock drawing skills than their counterparts who didn’t eat this way.
When people had diabetes, the brain health benefits of the Mediterranean diet were limited to individuals who had well-controlled blood sugar at the start of the study or experienced improvements in blood sugar control during the study. There wasn’t a clear benefit for people who started out with poorly controlled blood sugar or individuals who got worse during the study.
The study wasn’t a controlled trial designed to prove that a Mediterranean diet can improve brain health.
Another limitation of the study is that it focused only on Puerto Rican people meaning that the results might not apply to individuals from other racial or ethnic groups or with different dietary traditions. Researchers also relied on study participants to accurately recall and report what they ate and drank, which isn’t always accurate.
Still, following a Mediterranean diet may make sense for many people with and without diabetes. Extensive research has linked eating a Mediterranean-style diet to numerous health benefits.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.