Eating a Mediterranean diet during your 30s, 40s and 50s will help to keep you fit and healthy into old age and help you to live longer, a new study has found.
The study, which analysed the diets of more than 900 British men and women since they were born in March 1946, was conducted by researchers from the University of Southampton.
The results revealed that those participants who ate the most fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals - representative of the famed Mediterranean diet - scored better in physical tests than those who ate highly processed Western foods.
Lead scientist, Professor Sian Robinson said of the findings:
“This study suggests that making good dietary choices throughout adulthood - by cutting down on highly processed foods and incorporating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains into your diet - can have a significant beneficial effect on strength and physical performance later in life, helping to ensure a much healthier old age.”
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The best and most widely studied of all diets, the Mediterranean diet is considered to be the gold standard for a healthy lifestyle.
The Mediterranean diet originates from the traditional healthy living habits of the people in Italy, France, Greece and Spain (those that border the Mediterranean Sea) and, though it varies by region, is largely based on a diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, cereal grains, olive oil and fish.
What is the difference between a Western diet and a Mediterranean diet?
The ‘Western diet’ is often described as high in saturated fats, processed foods, red meats and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, and low in fruits and vegetables, seafood and wholegrains.
“Typically, those who conform to this so-called ‘Western’ way of eating have lower intakes of plant-based foods, as well as the essential nutrients, vitamins minerals and phytochemicals that they contain”, explains nutritionist Fiona Hunter.
The Western diet has been linked to a number of health conditions, such as coronary heart disease (CVD), including high blood pressure (hypertension), as well as obesity, diabetes, dementia and inflammation.
In stark contrast, the Mediterranean diet has long been associated with longevity, cited as one of the pillars of good healthy by Professor Michel Poulain and Researcher Dan Buettner in their research into longevity.
What are the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet?
It seems that no matter which country you call home, the closer you follow a Mediterranean-style diet, the lower your risk of heart disease. In large population surveys, participants are given a score based on how closely their diet matches the typical Mediterranean pattern and researchers generally find the closer the score, the lower the overall death rate and in particular the lower the rate of heart disease.
In addition, intervention studies from countries as far apart as India and France, in which the researchers have asked people to change their diets to replicate the Mediterranean diet, have also shown the diet offers a powerful protective effect against both first time and subsequent heart attacks.
Studies observing adults living in Greece found that those who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet had a 51 per cent lower risk of being obese and a 59 per cent lower risk of having central obesity, where weight gain is most concentrated around the waist conferring greater heart health risk.
Moreover, the evidence is now so strong that the latest guidance from National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) make specific recommendation to promote a Mediterranean style diet.
Those who most closely followed this way of eating might expect to live, on average, four and a half years longer than those not following a Mediterranean diet.
A US study which analysed blood samples from more than 4,500 healthy women found that telomere length – the protective cap at the end of chromosomes associated with longevity – was longest in those whose diets most resembled the Mediterranean diet.
Several recent studies suggest a Mediterranean-style diet significantly reduces the risk of developing forms of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease. A team from the University of Exeter recently re-analysed 24 studies, noting those who followed a Mediterranean diet were associated with reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease, lower rate of cognitive decline and better overall cognitive function as get older compared with those who didn’t.
How can I eat a Mediterranean diet?
Want to reap the benefits of a Mediterranean diet from the comfort of your own home? Follow these 8 top tips from nutritionist Fiona Hunter:
- “Choose unsaturated vegetable oils and spreads, such as rapeseed or olive oil, instead of those made from animal fats such as butter, ghee, lard and oils which are high in saturated fat such as coconut oil
- Reduce your intake of saturated fats, such as those found in biscuits, cakes, baked goods, confectionery, dairy products as well as fatty and processed meats such sausages and burgers,
- Include plenty of plant-based sources of protein, such as nuts, pulses and legumes and soya products.
- Eat at least two portions of fish twice per week, including at least one portion of oily fish as salmon, trout, mackerel, herrings, sardines or pilchards. For most oily fish r smoked, frozen and canned varieties all count. The one exception is canned tuna fish which doesn’t contain the beneficial omega-3 fats. Not a fan of oily fish? Try a supplement containing omega 3.
- Make sure at least half your starchy carbohydrates come from wholegrains - around two to three servings a day. Examples include: wholegrain bread and breakfast cereals, wholegrain crackers and oatcakes, brown rice or wholegrain pasta.
- Make sure you eat at least 5 portions of fruit/and or veg a day and opt for a variety of different coloured fruits and vegetables each day. These contain a wide range of cardio protective plant nutrients or phytochemicals. Fresh, frozen, juice, dried and canned all count towards this total. Remember that 5 is the minimum you should eat.
- Cut down on added salt and salty processed food, using herbs spices and lemon to to flavour cooking naturally.”
- Try to include a small handful of nuts in your diet each week