Spoiling an otherwise healthy diet with fried food, sweets, refined grains and red meat can have long term effects on the brain, researchers have found.

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been known for a long time, but a team from the Rush University Medical Center wanted to see how combining it with Western foods impacted people’s health.

Dr Puja Agarwal, a nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the college, said: “Eating a diet that emphasises vegetables, fruit, fish and whole grains may positively affects a person’s health.

“But when it is combined with fried food, sweets, refined grains, red meat and processed meat, we observed that the benefits of eating the Mediterranean part of the diet seems to be diminished.”

They were able to collect their findings using data from just over 5,000 people from Chicago who were recruited for the Chicago Health and Aging Project, which was developed to look at the cognitive health of adults aged 65 and older.

Every three years the volunteers are asked to complete an assessment which is testing their skills and memory.  They were also asked about how often they consumed certain food items.

The researchers noticed that those who ate fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish, potatoes and unrefined cereals on a regular basis proved the decline of their cognitive behaviours were much slower when compared to those who regularly combined their healthy diet with foods associated with the Western world.

Dr Agarwal said: “Western diets may adversely affect cognitive health. Individuals who had a high Mediterranean diet score compared to those who had the lowest score were equivalent to being 5.8 years younger in age cognitively.

“The more we can incorporate green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, olive oil, and fish into our diets, the better it is for our aging brains and bodies. Other studies show that red and processed meat, fried food and low whole grains intake are associated with higher inflammation and faster cognitive decline in older ages.

“To benefit from diets such as the Mediterranean diet, or MIND diet, we would have to limit our consumption of processed foods and other unhealthy foods such as fried foods and sweets.”

The findings have been published in the Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

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