The Mediterranean diet — which consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes, red wine, and olive oil — is derived from the diet traditionally eaten by people living in Mediterranean countries like Greece and Italy. Since the mid-20 century, the Mediterranean diet has been recognized as one that is extremely heart healthy. Now, new evidence suggests that it can help you live longer, too.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional eating habits of people living in Greece and Southern Italy. A post-WWII study led by the Mayo Foundation’s Ancel Keys investigated the health and eating habits of 13,000 middle-aged men in America, Japan, Greece, Italy, Finland, Yugoslavia, and the Netherlands. These were men who had lived through World War II, and many of them had suffered years of deprivation as a result. Keys found, however, that the American men — those who had experienced the least dietary deprivation during the war years — had the highest rates of cardiovascular disease. Those who lived in Greece and Southern Italy, and especially on the island of Crete, had the healthiest hearts, despite the fact that they had suffered the most poverty and deprivation not only during the war, but before and after.
Keys found that dual factors helped keep these poverty stricken men healthy. One was the daily exercise they got tending to their livestock and crops. The other was their diet, which was heavily based on fruits, nuts, vegetables, legumes, fresh bread, fish, red wine, and olive oil, much of which they produced themselves. These men ate meat, dairy products, and processed foods sparingly.
Mediterranean Diet May Slow Aging
According to a study recently published in The BMJ, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to slower aging. The study, performed by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, examined dietary information and blood tests supplied by 4,676 women who completed the Nurses’ Health Study.
The researchers found that, the more diligently the women practiced the principles of the Mediterranean diet, the more likely they were to possess longer telomeres. Telomeres are pieces of DNA that can be found on the ends of chromosomes. They protect chromosomal integrity, but naturally become shorter as a person ages. The shorter telomeres become, the greater the risk of age-related disease and lowered life expectancy. Longer telomeres, on the other hand, indicate slower aging and a decreased risk of chronic disease.
The researchers noted that no single food or category of food could be linked to increased telomere length; it was the entire Mediterranean diet as a whole that was keeping these women healthy. Further research is needed, however, since this study examined only women of European descent, and examined their genetic data at only one point in time instead of at multiple points over the course of their lifetimes.
Heart Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Whether or not the Mediterranean diet is found to significantly slow the aging process, there’s no doubt that it’s good for your heart. The healthy fats, antioxidants, and fiber in the Mediterranean diet protects against a range of chronic conditions including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Even if you’re already taking drugs like Lipitor to control high cholesterol, you can promote your heart health by adopting principles of the Mediterranean diet. Some tips from the Mayo Clinic include:
- Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes
- Eat poultry or fish at least twice a week
- Eat olive, corn, or other vegetables oils instead of butter
- Flavor foods using herbs and spices
- Eat red meat no more than a few times a month
Red wine is also a part of the Mediterranean diet, but many doctors warn that it’s easy to consume too much alcohol. The health benefits of drinking alcohol aren’t so great that you should start drinking if you don’t already. If you already have cardiovascular disease, liver disease, or a history of substance abuse problems, you shouldn’t drink red wine. But if you’re capable of controlling your drinking and don’t have any health problems, you can go ahead and drink one glass of red wine per day if you’re a woman and two if you’re a man. More than that could cause heart problems instead of preventing them.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not through diet alone that people in Greece and Southern Italy enjoy longer lives and better health. They also exercise every day, and nurture strong interpersonal connections with family and friends.
If you’re looking for a way to protect your health and extend your life, the Mediterranean diet may be it. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, and poultry, and low in red meat and dairy products, can help you enjoy a long and healthy life — especially when you share those healthy meals with those closest to you.