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Food for thought: The holiday diet that can boost your brain health

Holidaying in the Mediterranean is an item on many travel lovers’ bucket lists, with the warm sun, cool ocean and bounty of fresh food on offer enticing many to the iconic coastline.

While feasting on tasty fruits, grazing on delicious wholegrains and indulging in fresh fish is considered a treat for many who visit the area, replicating the famous diet at home is easy and, according to research, is beneficial to brain health and overall health.

Research has shown the nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet help form new synapses, which are the connections that help deliver messages to different parts of the brain and are a vital part of healthy brain function. 

“The Mediterranean diet doesn’t come from fast food at your local petrol station, the Mediterranean diet is usually prepared at home and we know that the fresher the food is the more nutrients it has in it,” Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and Memory Clinic at Austin Health, says.

Many of the foods found in the Mediterranean diet, including wholegrains, berries, leafy green vegetables, eggs and fish, are rich in antioxidants and vitamins that have been shown to help preserve brain cells and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as arthritis, heart disease and cancer. For example, research published by the American Association for Cancer Research found a diet that encourages healthy eating and discourages alcohol consumption – like the Mediterranean diet – was associated with a reduced overall cancer risk, as well as lower breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer risks.

So how can you incorporate these foods into your everyday diet? In the breakfast department, the Mediterranean morning-starter of eggs on wholegrain toast is encouraged because it’s a meal that’s packed with brain-boosting B-vitamins. If you prefer something lighter to start your day, citrus fruits are also rich in vitamin B – which plays a role in delaying cognitive decline and the onset of other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety

While seafood can sometimes seem tricky to cook with at home, salmon and tuna, which are found aplenty along the Mediterranean coast, are all high in omega-3 fatty acids, which has been shown to help improve cognition, and can easily be incorporated into your daily diet. For dinner, try baking salmon with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and serve with a squeeze of lemon, steamed potatoes and asparagus. If you’re looking for a light lunch, create a fresh salad with baby spinach, tomatoes, olives and fetta cheese and pan-fried or tinned tuna. The omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood are shown to not only improve brain health but are also linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke and can help stabilise blood sugars and reduce symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

Other foods found in the Mediterranean diet, such as nuts, seeds and dairy can be enjoyed as snacks throughout the day – try snacking on a small bowl of natural yoghurt with fruit, a sprinkling of nuts and a drizzle of honey – to support brain health and replace foods that are high in processed sugar and refined oils. 

All these foods help support brain health and can delay cognitive decline as we age. 

While consuming a nutrient-rich diet is important for people already diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s, drinking a 125-millilitre bottle of Souvenaid® daily is another effective way for patients to consume a Mediterranean like diet.

Souvenaid® is a food for special medical purposes that nutritionally supports memory loss in early Alzheimer’s disease. 

“The thing about Souvenaid® is that it has many of the ingredients of the Mediterranean diet, but in a far greater concentration than you could get from a diet,” Woodward says. “But the concentration of particularly fish oil and choline in Souvenaid®, which you can get from your diet, would require you to eat 5 or 6 kilograms of the Mediterranean diet a day, which nobody’s going to do.”

Woodward says even those who have never eaten many of the foods in the Mediterranean diet can benefit from making the switch to the healthy diet, as it is never too late to start working on your health and wellbeing. 

Content created in consultation with dementia expert Associate Professor Michael Woodward.