Unhealthy foods can diminish the positive effects of a healthy diet
Researchers have reported a decrease in the benefits of a Mediterranean diet among those with a high frequency of eating unhealthy foods.
Adherence to a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, has a positive impact on health, but until now not much was known about the effects of including harmful foods in a healthy diet. “Eating a diet that focuses on vegetables, fruits, fish and whole grains can have a positive effect on your health,” said Puja Agarwal, a nutrition epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College. “But when combined with fried foods, sweets, refined cereals, red meat and processed meat, I have noticed that the benefits of consuming the Mediterranean part of the diet seem to diminish.” A Mediterranean diet is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline in older adults.
On January 7, 2021, a group of researchers at Rush University Medical Center reported a decrease in the benefits of a Mediterranean diet among people who ate unhealthy foods quite frequently. The results of the study were published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.
In an observational study that included 5,001 older adults in Chicago, the researchers analyzed between 1993 and 2012 how much participants followed a Mediterranean diet. They also assessed how much each participant followed a Western diet, which included fried foods, refined grains, sweets, red and processed meat, high-fat dairy products, and pizza. They assigned scores from zero to five for each food product, thus compiling a total score of the Mediterranean diet for each participant, over a range of 0 to 55.
The researchers then examined the association between Mediterranean diet scores and changes in participants’ overall cognitive function, episodic memory, and perceptual speed. Participants with slower cognitive decline over the follow-up years were those who adhered closest to the Mediterranean diet, along with limiting foods that are part of the Western diet, while participants who consumed more of the Western diet had no beneficial effect of healthy food components in slowing cognitive decline.
“Western diets can negatively affect cognitive health,” Agarwal said. “People with a high score on the Mediterranean diet, compared to those with the lowest score, were equivalent to being 5.8 years younger cognitively.” Agarwal said the results complement other studies showing that a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes, and also supports previous studies on the Mediterranean diet and what was known about it so far.
Of course, the study and the conclusions cannot be generalized and certainly longitudinal studies on diet and knowledge will be carried out among the middle-aged population.
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