If there’s a single way of eating that persists in laying claim as one of the healthiest, it’s the Mediterranean diet. Experts continue to sing the praises of eating plenty of olive oil, plant foods, fish and wine. In fact, in one study, the benefits for heart health were so clear that the researchers ended the study early, saying it was unethical to continue.
Now new research adds to the accolades. Scientists in Boston looked at the nutritional data from 4,676 women participating in the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study – the well-known ongoing prospective cohort analysis – and discovered that those whose food choices most closely followed a Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres. Telomeres are the protective buffers on the ends of chromosomes and can be used as a biomarker of aging; the longer they are, the better.
“We know that having shorter telomeres is associated with a lower life expectancy and a greater risk of cancer, heart disease and other diseases,” said study coauthor Immaculata De Vivo, an associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Certain lifestyle factors like obesity, sugary sodas, and smoking have been found to accelerate telomere shortening, and now our research suggests the Mediterranean diet can slow this shortening.”
The Mediterranean diet is not a specific diet plan per se, but rather eating in the traditional style of those living in Mediterranean countries. It is characterized by consuming a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and unrefined grains. There is plenty of olive oil, but little saturated fat; a moderate intake of fish, but little dairy, meat and poultry. And while cookies and sugar are limited, a regular but moderate dose of wine is involved.
It is thought that the antioxidants present in the favored foods protect against cell aging. While the researchers didn’t find that any specific food provided the silver bullet, they suggest that it was a combination of the components that predicted telomere length.
The researchers scored each woman’s diet according to how closely it adhered to Mediterranean components; what they found was that each one-point change in their grading system equated to an extra year and a half of life. A three-point change, the study notes, would correspond to an average 4.5 years of aging, which is comparable to the difference between smokers with non-smokers.
The researchers also concluded that women who may have veered slightly from the Mediterranean diet but who still ate a healthy diet – like eating chicken and low-fat dairy products in addition to the Mediterranean basics – also had longer telomeres than those who ate a standard American diet with red meat, saturated fats, sweets and empty calories. Those who followed the Mediterranean diet, however, had the longest telomeres on average. In conclusion, the authors noted that their results further support the benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet for promoting health and longevity. Who can argue with that?