(Health Secrets) Several recent studies have led to an amazing discovery: people who choose to eat according to the principles of the Mediterranean diet live longer, happier and healthier lives. Earlier research found that eating the Mediterranean diet is protective against cardiovascular disease and can prevent a second heart attack. Now we are seeing that this diet can extend longevity by reducing death from all causes including cancer.
The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study
Seminal research on the Mediterranean diet investigated the diet in relation to mortality, and revealed startling information about its role in health and longevity. The study covered a ten year period, from 1995 to 2005. Participants included 214,284 men and 166,012 women. During follow up of the group for all-cause mortality 27,799 deaths were documented, and researchers assessed conformity with the Mediterranean diet pattern. Results indicated that the Mediterranean diet was highly associated with reduced all-cause and cause-specific mortality in both men and women. The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
Americans tend to associate the word diet with restriction and deprivation. But forget this definition because the Mediterranean diet is based on the abundance of foods found in the countries of the Mediterranean Basin. The word diet is used in the traditional sense, meaning a way or style of eating.
The most commonly understood version of the diet was presented by Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University’s School of Public Health in the mid-1990s. It is a diet based on “food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s”, according to Willett.
The traditional Mediterranean diet has been interpreted into a new type of food pyramid what includes daily physical activity at its base. Regular physical activity is seen as essential for promoting healthy weight, fitness and well-being. Typical exercises of the Mediterranean’s might include walking, house cleaning, running, soccer, tennis, golf, swimming, hiking, scuba diving, ball games, skiing, surfing, yard work, dancing, weight lifting, and love making.
In ascending order, the pyramid also includes:
* An abundance of food from plant sources, including fruits and vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Common foods on this step include pasta, rice, couscous, and polenta.
* Emphasis on a variety of minimally processed and, wherever possible, seasonally fresh and locally grown foods. Common vegetables include olives, avocados, grapes, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, capers, almonds, walnuts, chick peas, white beans, lentils and other beans, and peanuts.
* Olive oil as the principle fat. Total fat can range from less than 25 percent to over 35 percent of calories, with saturated fat no more than 7 to 8 percent of calories.
* Daily consumption of low to moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt.
* Weekly consumption of low to moderate amounts of fish. Common fish are shellfish and sardines.
* Weekly consumption of poultry, and from zero to four eggs per week including those used in cooking and baking.
* Alcohol, particularly red wine, may be consumed in moderation and with meals.
* Sweets. Common sweets are pastries, ice cream and cookies.
*Meat is at the top of the Mediterranean diet pyramid. Common meats are veal and lamb.
It’s quite interesting that the foundation of the U.S. diet is often meat, but meat is at the top of the Mediterranean diet, recommended to be eaten less frequently even than sweets.
One of the main explanations for the beneficial effects of the diet is thought to be the large amount of olive oil which is seen as lowering cholesterol levels in the blood. Olive oil is also known to lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Research has indicated that olive oil prevents peptic ulcers and is effective in treatment of peptic ulcer disease, and may be a factor in preventing and treating cancer, particularly breast and stomach cancers.
The consumption of red wine is considered a factor in the benefits of the diet, as it contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties. It is not any one particular nutrient that confers the benefits of the diet, but rather the combination of nutrients found in this diet comprised of unprocessed foods. The olive oil, nuts and fish of the diet contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that omega-3 lower triglycerides and may provide an anti-inflammatory effect helping to stabilize blood vessel lining.
Beyond the NIH-AARP study
Since the NIH-AARP study was published, researchers have examined the effects of the diet on several individual conditions, including colorectal cancer, a deadly form of cancer for which conventional medicine has little to offer.
In a newly published study, scientists in Italy investigated patients with a first diagnosis of colorectal cancer compared with control subjects. They found that a greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduced odds of colorectal cancer by a whopping 54%. They also found that smoking, family history of colorectal cancer, obesity, diabetes, lack of physical activity, and high alcohol intake were significantly associated with colorectal cancer, but only among subjects less adherent to the Mediterranean diet. This finding suggests that sticking closely to the Mediterranean diet confers benefits even when these other factors are present.
Another new study, this time from the Gill Heart Institute at the University of Kentucky, found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet produces a huge decrease in peripheral arterial disease of 56%. This includes beneficial effects on inflammation, vascular endothelium, and insulin resistance.
In addition, other researchers have documented that adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduces risk of stroke, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, dementia, asthma, general obesity, abdominal obesity, depression, and other forms of cancer. The Mediterranean diet forestalls aging through its high antioxidant content.
Other interesting research
The Seven Countries Study found that men living in Crete had exceptionally low death rates from heart disease despite moderate to high intake of fat. The Cretan diet is similar to other traditional Mediterranean diets, consisting mostly of olive oil, bread, fish, moderate amounts of dairy food and wine, and an abundance of fruit and vegetables.
Incorporating the Mediterranean diet into your life
The principles of the Mediterranean diet can become part of your lifestyle based on the way you shop. Here are some things to remember.
All types of olive oil provide monounsaturated fat, but “extra virgin” olive oil is the least processed form and contains the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
Walnuts contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. All nuts are very nutritionally dense, so they should not be eaten in large amounts. Two ounces of nuts a day is plenty. Buy whole peanut butter, preferably the kind you grind yourself at the store, and avoid peanut butter containing trans fat.
Eat a variety of whole fruits and vegetables every day. Shop by color. Your selection of fruits and vegetables should reflect all the colors in the produce section. Don’t try to stock up a week’s worth of fruits and vegetables. Shop more frequently so your selection is as fresh as you can get it.
Substitute wild caught fish and free range chicken for all other meats except your monthly dose of red meat, which should be organic.
Choose yogurt and cheeses made according to tradition. If you want low fat cheese, choose mozzarella or any cheese that has been traditionally made from skim milk. Stay away from any yogurt or cheese that advertises itself as reduced fat, low fat, or fat free.
And don’t forget that the Mediterranean is a very sunny warm place where people feel at ease outside. Get as much fresh air as you can, let the sun shine on you, let a breeze kiss your skin, and cultivate conviviality.
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