The Real Reason You Don't Want To Cheat On The Mediterranean Diet

If you're trying to lose weight or improve overall wellness, a healthy diet is key. Many dieters believe in including cheat meals or cheat days, allowing indulgences that they avoid the rest of the time.

For one diet in particular, those cheats may have a higher cost than just an increase in calorie consumption. That's because the Mediterranean diet has been shown to have benefits well beyond weight loss, extending into how well your mind works.

Following the Mediterranean diet, or one like it — that is, rich in fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fish — has been shown to maintain brain health and thought processes as we age, according to research from Rush University. But when study participants cheated on a healthy diet by adding in elements of a western diet, the positive benefits were lost. The results of the study were published in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association.

Significant cognitive effects from the Mediterranean diet

Between the years of 1993 and 2012, scientists studied 5,001 adults over the age of 65. Every three years, participants were tested on their cognitive abilities, and completed a dietary survey that covered 144 foods. Results showed that those who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet had brain function that was about six years "younger" (that is, with less cognitive decline) than those who ate a western diet. A western diet was considered one full of fried food, sweets, red meat, refined grains, and full-fat dairy. The results were consistent when researchers controlled for smoking, body mass index, and health conditions.

That's not to say all is completely lost if you do cheat on your Mediterranean diet. Another study found that healthy eating was enough to minimize damage to the cardiovascular system done by cheat meals. This research, published in European Heart Journal, indicates that physicians might do better to encourage people with heart disease to eat more healthy foods, rather than just avoiding unhealthy choices.

In U.S. News & World Report, dietician Alissa Rumsey advises people to be mindful about treats. Depriving oneself of treats altogether can lead to binging, so don't cut them out completely. Consider sweet treats from whole foods that don't include refined sugars. (A bowl of berries with coconut milk and honey? Yum!) Eat mindfully, weighing what you desire in the moment versus the long-term.