With New Year’s resolutions on everyone’s minds, January is the month of all things diet. Whether you overloaded on holiday cookies or remained true to your regimen of salads and smoothies, research points to one health-promoting diet plan no matter your weight loss goals. A Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish, and olive oil has been linked to longevity, improved blood flow, and kidney health.
In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers linked the Mediterranean diet to longevity by measuring telomeres (repetitive DNA sequences on chromosomes that protect genomic DNA). Telomere length is a marker of aging. Shorter length is associated with decreased life expectancy and increased rate of developing chronic disease. Length naturally decreases with age, but oxidative stress and inflammation can speed up the process. Research suggests telomere length, and therefore life expectancy, can be changed by modifying lifestyle factors like diet.
Using data from the Nurses’ Health Study, researchers analyzed dietary patterns and measured telomere length in over 4,600 women ages 42 to 70 years. Participants completed a questionnaire indicating how often they ate certain foods, and then diets were scored 0-9, with higher scores going to diets closest to a traditional Mediterranean diet. Not surprisingly, researchers found younger women had longer telomeres, but they also noted greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with longer telomere length. For every one point change in diet score, the difference in telomere length corresponded with 1.5 years of aging. Therefore a three point increase in diet score represented 4.5 more years of life, a similar difference when comparing aging of smokers with non-smokers.
Researchers attribute the effect on telomere length with the Mediterranean diet’s capacity to protect against oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. Interestingly, telomere length was not associated with any one particular nutrient-rich food. Effect on aging was only seen when the Mediterranean diet was eaten as a whole, suggesting the foods work synergistically to promote health and longevity.
Props to the Mediterranean diet don’t end there. Two other recent studies point to additional health benefits of this nutrient-packed diet pattern. A study from the American Society of Nephrology found a one point increase in Mediterranean diet score was associated with a 17% lower risk of developing chronic kidney disease, and those who adhered most strictly to the diet saw a 50% lower risk. A study from the UK found a combination of eating a Mediterranean diet and exercising regularly resulted in improved blood flow in endothelial cells – cells in the inner lining of blood vessels – which could help reduce risk of developing heart disease.
You don’t need to book a flight to Europe to reap the benefits of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Base your diet around a variety of vegetables and fruits; add legumes, nuts, and fish for protein; choose whole grains like quinoa and farro; and use olive oil for cooking and on salads. Want even more Mediterranean flavor? Try our Tuscan Herb White Bean Soup. Packed with fiber and protein and low in saturated fat, this hearty soup brings Tuscan flavor to the comforts of your own kitchen. No passport needed.
Published January 1, 2015