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Mediterranean and MIND Diets Linked to Later Onset of Parkinson’s Disease

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Key Takeaways

  • It currently isn't possible to prevent Parkinson's disease, however, research has found that certain dietary patterns may help reduce the risk of Parkinson's.
  • A new study suggests that while both sexes may benefit from following the Mediterranean diet, women in particular may benefit from following the MIND diet in order to prevent or delay the onset of Parkinson's disease. 

Most people with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness, and walking, balance, and coordination issues, first develop symptoms at about age 60. Early-onset forms of Parkinson’s, which begin before the age of 50, often are inherited, and in some cases are believed to be due to gene mutations. 

While it’s not possible to prevent Parkinson’s disease, some lifestyle changes may help reduce your risk. A new study, published in the journal Movement Disorders, found an association between later age at Parkinson’s disease onset and high adherence to two specific diets: the Mediterranean diet and the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet.    

What the Study Found

The study, carried out by researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada, included 167 participants with Parkinson’s, with an average age of 64.9 years and an average time of disease onset of 6.5 years. The majority (68.3%) were men, and 119 healthy controls also were included as a comparison. 

Over 12 months, the participants’ dietary habits, exercise habits, and total energy intake (in kilocalories) were measured. This allowed the researchers to analyze the relationship between adherence to the MIND diet and the age of Parkinson’s onset, and compare the results to those who followed the Mediterranean diet alone. 

James Beck, PhD

A healthy diet...is like a rising tide that raises all boats. That is, not only can a healthy diet help your Parkinson’s disease, but it can also improve overall health and minimize issues from other conditions.

— James Beck, PhD

Overall, their analysis revealed that older Parkinson’s patients with a later onset age had higher adherence to all diets. But the benefits were different when it came to the sex of the participant. 

“Women who followed the MIND diet more closely were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease up to 17.4 years later on average than the women who followed the diet the least,” says lead author Avril Metcalfe-Roach, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. This effect was almost twice as large as the effect of the Mediterranean diet, which was up to 9.8 years.

“In men, the Mediterranean diet performed slightly better than the MIND diet, with a difference of up to 8.4 years,” reveals Metcalfe-Roach. 

These stark sex difference came as a surprise to the researchers. “Parkinson's disease is known to have sex differences, though it's not understood why; approximately two-thirds of patients are men, and men and women tend to have slightly different symptoms,” says Metcalfe-Roach. “The differences between the closely-related MIND and Mediterranean diets may enable us to identify what drives the sex differences observed.”

The suggestion that delaying the onset of Parkinson's disease may be feasible using easily accessible changes to diet is particularly exciting, Metcalfe-Roach adds, as no preventative treatments for the disease currently exist.

Limitations of the Research

The main issue with this study is that it assumes that how a person eats remains unchanged over their lifetime. "In particular, it assumes that a single questionnaire on how a person eats after they have been diagnosed with Parkinson's for several years closely captures how they ate decades before," says James Beck, PhD, chief scientific officer of the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Beck points out that epidemiology studies (like this one) can't demonstrate a direct cause and effect from how a person ate in their 20s and 30s, and the likelihood of developing Parkinson's decades later. However, he also says that it's clear from previous research that healthy diets, in particular Mediterranean diets, are often linked with a lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease.

Avril Metcalfe-Roach

Women who followed the MIND diet more closely were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease up to 17.4 years later on average than the women who followed the diet the least.

— Avril Metcalfe-Roach

"While this study cannot make a direct link between diet and Parkinson's disease diagnosis, the MIND diet and the Mediterranean diets all represent different approaches to healthy eating and should be encouraged," he says. "A healthy diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, and beans, while consuming small amounts of lean protein like chicken and fish, is like a rising tide that raises all boats. That is, not only can a healthy diet help one’s Parkinson’s disease, but it can also improve overall health and minimize issues from other conditions."

Why the Mediterranean Diet?

This diet has been studied for its health benefits for about 50 years, says Metcalfe-Roach. “It was originally noteworthy because people who followed the diet were observed to have reduced rates of a range of different diseases and conditions, including cancer, obesity, cardiovascular problems, and overall mortality,” she explains.

There has also been growing interest in the effects of the Mediterranean diet on neurodegenerative diseases, Metcalfe-Roach adds—a number of previous studies have correlated Mediterranean diet adherence with lower rates of Alzheimer's disease, cognitive decline, and Parkinson's disease.

However, it's still unclear whether the correlation is due to the diet or some other factor (for instance, people who eat well might be more likely to live healthier lives overall, which could affect disease onset in ways not tested for).

Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS

Balance across the groups is encouraged and no foods or food groups are forbidden. The food combinations are full of color, flavors, textures, and variety, as well as antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber.

— Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS

The Mediterranean diet has a strong emphasis on balance both within and among the food groups, says Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS, an emeritus professor of nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation's scientific advisory board.

This means fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and legumes, eggs and small portions of meat for protein, yogurts and other moderate-fat dairy, grains with an emphasis on whole grains nuts and legumes, olive oil, and a moderate amount of wine.

"Balance across the groups is encouraged and no foods or food groups are forbidden," Miller Jones explains. "The food combinations are full of color, flavors, textures, and variety, as well as antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber." In fact, she prefers to call this appealing and delicious combination of foods the Mediterranean pattern, eliminating the pejorative word "diet."

A major plus of the Mediterranean diet is that it's a truly sustainable eating pattern. "It's not a diet one goes 'on' and then goes 'off.'" Miller Jones says.

Why the MIND Diet?

This diet is still new—it was only first published in 2015, and was specifically designed to minimize cognitive decline. “Though it's based largely on the Mediterranean diet, it also prohibits several new food groups, including several that we often find in unhealthy Western diets, like fast/fried food and sugary food,” Metcalfe-Roach explains.

“This diet has also shown quite a lot of potential, as it has now been correlated with reduced rates of several neurodegenerative diseases and has performed better than the Mediterranean diet in some instances.”

Before this study, the MIND diet had never been examined in a group of people with Parkinson's disease. “The inclusion of the Mediterranean diet allows us to demonstrate that not only are our MIND diet findings significant, but that the potential benefits of the diet may outweigh those of the Mediterranean diet, which is the current de facto gold standard neuroprotective diet,” says Metcalfe-Roach. 

Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS

The phytochemicals in berries, nuts, and beans protect against products of free radicals that can damage cells throughout the body—including those in the brain.

— Julie Miller Jones, PhD, LN, CNS

"Like the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet is a plant-focused eating pattern that contains probiotics, antioxidants, whole grains, beans and soybeans (four times per week at least), nuts (five times per week), and mono and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from olive and fatty fish, at least once a week," Miller Jones says. "It recommends a low intake of saturated fats, animal-derived proteins, and refined sugars." 

The MIND diet also emphasizes berries (plus cherries and pomegranate), as these fruits are rich in antioxidants and high in fiber. "The phytochemicals in berries, nuts, and beans (especially dark-colored varieties such as black beans) protect against products of free radicals that can damage cells throughout the body—including those in the brain," Miller Jones explains.   

People who already have a Parkinson’s diagnosis also can benefit from dietary changes. The researchers recommend that people with Parkinson’s eat a diet rich in fresh vegetables, whole grains, and healthy oils. while limiting the intake of dairy, red meat, and sugary or processed foods. 

What This Means For You

You don't need to have an increased risk of Parkinson's to benefit from the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet. If either of these eating plans appeal to you, a registered dietitian can help you get started and ensure you choose foods that provide all the necessary nutrients.

If you have any questions about diet and Parkinson's disease, you can contact the free Parkinson's Foundation Helpline on 1-800-4PD-INFO (473-4636).

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  1. Metcalfe-Roach A et al. MIND and Mediterranean Diets Associated with Later Onset of Parkinson's Disease. Movement Disorders. 2021 Jan. doi:10.1002/mds.28464