Americans are always searching for the next nutrition secret and the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet have come under close scrutiny. Perhaps the intriguing moniker and thoughts of far away lands started the curiosity. Looking at many popular supplements and recent nutrition fads, anything that is from foreign gains popularity and reigns supreme for many months. News coverage, magazines, and books frequently tout the latest secret that will be revealed. Why do the French have less disease? What grows in the Amazon that we are missing? And of course, what are the specifics of the Mediterranean lifestyle that lead to their healthier life free from many of the diseases that plague us? This diet has been making headlines for a while and all reports point to the increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and healthy sources of fat. It is thought that increasing the amount of these kinds of foods benefits the body because they are very nutrient dense and have essential components for our body. Scientists have been searching for the reason that this diet seems to extend longevity and the quality of life during those extra years.
Scientific Findings Behind The Mediterranean Diet
A collaborative effort between US based, and Greece based scientistsfollowed 23,000 participants for 8.5 years. They were asked about their eating habits, with specifics required for their consumption of certain foods. In addition, the scientists inquired about other health conditions that may have an effect on the participants’ mortality or morbidity. They concluded that “the dominant components of the Mediterranean diet score as a predictor of lower mortality are moderate consumption of ethanol [alcoholic beverages], low consumption of meat and meat products, and high consumption of vegetables, fruits and nuts, olive oil, and legumes.” 1 So it seems that the foods the people did not eat were greater contributors to extending life than the foods that these people did eat. The foods that the people avoided are those that are often seen in a typical American diet.
Fish and seafood are often integrated into the Mediterranean diet and many people have heard of the benefits of consuming these foods. Scientists could not really make conclusive claims about the consumption of these foods (or the avoidance of dairy) because “these groups include a lot of different foods with different effects and the low numbers of people consuming fish and seafood in the sample.” 1 For the study, people were scored from 0-10 with a higher number signifying how closely they ate a true Mediterranean diet. The people with the lowest numbers had the highest numbers of earlier deaths. When running statistical analysis on the data, researchers concluded that the difference was significant. Their take home message being that following this type of diet may indeed extend life.
Even though the study shows that the foods not eaten are perhaps more important than the ones that are eaten, one should not think of following this plan as punishment. The food choices should be looked at as an exploration of new territories with new adventures for the palate. The thought should be not focus on the negative of ‘foods I cannot eat’, to the positive of ‘look at all of the new foods I can eat.’ Along with healthy eating choices, exercise and limiting exposure to carcinogens will also extend the number of years and the quality of years on lives.
2. “Anatomy of health effects of Mediterranean diet: Greek EPIC prospective cohort study.” Antonia Trichopoulou, Christina Bamia, and Dimitrios Trichopoulos. BMJ 2009;338:b2337 doi: 10.1136/bmj.b2337 (Published 23 June 2009)