If you’re still looking for a reason to switch to a Mediterranean diet, the latest research on how the healthy eating plan could potentially help you live longer might be the final piece of proof you need.
Followed by those living in Greece, Southern Italy and Spain, this diet takes advantage of the region’s bounty, and is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, olive oil, legumes and fish – as well as a regular glass of antioxidant-rich wine.
And according to new research that appeared earlier this month in the British Medical Journal, the diet could lead to a longer life span, based on one marker of aging.
Telomeres tell the story
A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Washington in Seattle, among others, found that women who followed a Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres than those who did not.
Telomeres are essentially bits of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes along with our genetic information. They have been compared to a bomb fuse, because every time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten, until eventually, the cell can no longer divide, and it becomes either inactive and dies, a process that has been linked to several severe health conditions. (Ref. 1)
This new study, however, reveals that the Mediterranean diet – rich in antioxidants that may help resist free radical damage caused by stress and pollution - can slow the shortening of telomeres, reducing the associated risks.
The secret to cellular youth
As part of the study – the largest to address the relationship between diet and telomeres - researchers studied 4,676 women who were enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, an ongoing trial that has tracked the health and habits of more than 120,000 registered nurses in the U.S. since 1976.
Led by Immaculata De Vivo, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the team of esteemed researchers found that women who ate a Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres than those who ate more red meat and dairy products. (Dairy is included in the Mediterranean diet – think feta cheese and Greek yogurt – but amounts are somewhat limited.)
Essentially, their cells appeared to be younger.
That makes choosing delicious, garlicky hummus (see recipe at the end) over a mayo-based ranch dip a pretty easy choice, doesn’t it?
“To our knowledge, this is the largest population-based study specifically addressing the association between Mediterranean diet adherence and telomere length in healthy, middle-aged women,” De Vivo said in a statement. “Our results further support the benefits of adherence to this diet to promote health and longevity.” (Ref. 2)
Why the Mediterranean diet is so powerful
According to researchers, oxidative stress and chronic inflammation (due to the immune system’s inability to effectively manage the inflammation process in the body) both are believed to accelerate the shortening of telomeres, which are particularly sensitive to damage from oxidation.
Because the Mediterranean diet is so rich in nutrients that support healthy inflammation management and help the body address oxidative stress – including omega-3 fatty acids from fish, nuts and olive oil – it may help reduce the impact of these two brutal enemies of our youth. (Ref. 3)
If you’re eating a healthy diet, is that protection enough? Maybe, researchers said, but the Mediterranean diet offered the most age defying benefits.
“Our findings showed that healthy eating, overall, was associated with longer telomeres,” said study co-author Marta Crous-Bou, a postdoctoral fellow in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s. “However, the strongest association was observed among women who adhered to the Mediterranean diet.” (Ref. 4)
Are you too old to defy aging?
The best part about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet is that you’re probably never too old to enjoy it.
Adherence to the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of developing health conditions linked to junk food irrespective of age, sex, race or culture. “This diet has a beneficial effect, even in high risk groups, and speaks to the fact that it is never too late to start eating a healthy diet,” said Demosthenes Panagiotakos, Ph.D., a professor at Harokopio University, in Athens, Greece, who headed the analysis. (Ref. 5)
Mediterranean diet options
If you’re looking for fresh ways to up your health factor by revamping your diet and going Mediterranean, include more broiled fish, make salads the focus of some meals and consider this delicious hummus recipe as an afternoon snack.
2 cans chickpeas, drained, rinsed and peels removed
3 cloves garlic
¼ cup tahini
¼ cup olive oil
1 large roasted red pepper
Juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt to taste
In a food processor, mix the chickpeas, garlic, tahini, olive oil, roasted red pepper, lemon juice and cumin until the mixture is smooth and well blended.
Add extra olive oil or a few tablespoons of water if your hummus is too thick.
Note: Dried chickpeas are also excellent for making hummus, if you have more time. Soak the chickpeas overnight and rinse them thoroughly. Put them in a large pot and cover with cold water. Add 2 teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon baking soda and simmer until the chickpeas are soft and easily mashed, about 1 hour. Drain and blend. (The baking soda softens the skins so they do not need to be removed. You can skip that step if using canned chickpeas, but the texture will not be as smooth.)
Serve your hummus with carrot and celery sticks, sesame sticks or warm whole-grain pita bread.