American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Author | Professor of Nutrition


Bigger Brains and the Mediterranean Diet

bowl of ratatouilleA new study was published last week showing that older adults who ate a Mediterranean Diet had bigger brains, more grey matter, and less dementia than the adults who ate a more American-style diet. Their brains were functioning as if they were five years younger.

All from eating one of the most delicious diets in the world.

This is the third major study to be published this year correlating the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet on the brain, in addition to all the studies that have shown the benefit to our heart. Really, nothing is more important to our health than our brains and our hearts.

So what exactly is the Mediterranean diet, and how can we follow it? Good question.

At dinner with my Aunt Freda (Thea Aphrodite) we were talking about our relatives in Greece, back in our little village. Our cousin in the original house still uses the wood-burning stove in the backyard to bake bread, because she doesn’t think the modern stove gets it right.

The cousins in the village are not worried about the new austerity measures, because they have everything they need right there. A bountiful garden full of vegetables and beans, fruit and nut trees, local olive oil and wine, and a few chickens for eggs. Its not far to get fresh fish and yogurt.

That’s the Mediterranean Diet right there. Imagine living in that little village, surrounded by your friends and family, sharing meals that you made from things you grew.

Breakfast is whole grain bread, with maybe a little cheese, and some fruit. Lunch is often bean or lentil soup, or a rustic salad in the summer. Snacks are fruit, olives, and nuts. Dinner is simple, with lots of vegetables and maybe some eggs or a little fish, chicken or meat. Everything is cooked in olive oil, and a glass of wine in the afternoon or with dinner is common.

Sweets are an occasional treat, there is no 7-11 around the corner for cheap candy, chips or soda. Meat is expensive, so its also an occasional treat.

It may sound strange to eat this way, but no one comes away from a trip to Greece or Italy or Spain complaining about the food. No one.

Want to give it a try? Here’s a new riff on a vegetable and bean salad to get you started:

Barley and Wilted Spinach Salad

2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil ( I like the oils from California)

1 cup quick-cooking barley

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

pinch of red pepper flakes

1 medium size lemon

1 3/4 cups water

2 6oz. bags baby spinach, roughly chopped

parmesan cheese

In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium high heat until hot. Zest your lemon, then cut it in half around the middle. Cook the lemon halves, cut side down, in the hot oil until brown, about 1-2 minutes. Set them aside for later.

Now add your onion, garlic, red pepper flakes and barley to the oil and cook, stirring often, until barley is lightly toasted and onion is soft.

Add the water and 1/2 tsp of salt, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Barley will be almost done.

Add your spinach and 1tsp of the lemon zest, stir and continue to cook until spinach wilts and the barley is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, top with parmesan cheese (either grated or shavings). Done! Serve hot, warm or room temperature.

You can also add a can of drained, rinsed beans like garbanzo or cannellini for a more substantial salad.

This salad keeps for a few days in the refrigerator and makes a great lunch the next day.

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