We all want to live long and prosperous lives, envisioning our 90-year-old selves exercising in great health and happiness. However, the splash of reality hits us in the face, telling us that nobody holds the magic 8-ball to our futures. There is obviously no way to know today or tomorrow, but perhaps we can do something about it and hope for the best. The food we ingest and put into our bodies holds greater power than we know, possibly nudging our way towards health and longevity. However, we may have to lift our eyes from the plates we’re feasting from and look elsewhere, perhaps across the Atlantic Ocean and towards the Mediterranean Sea.
The countries along the Mediterranean Sea and its inhabitants house and nurture a very special way of life and a way of eating that was considered a “poor man’s diet” for a long time, due to its lack of meat. Though this “poor man’s diet” is now titled the “Mediterranean diet,” it’s actually not a diet, but rather a dietary pattern. There are no specific foods one has to eat in order to collect the health benefits associated with this way of eating, but there are features that the Mediterranean denizens follow on a daily basis. Grains, fruits and vegetables are eaten at most meals, starring as the main highlight of the dish, instead of an afterthought. Nuts, beans, seeds and legumes are just as essential, showing up on a dish daily (probably multiple times a day). Herbs and spices are used liberally as the main conduit for flavor. Animal products are used as well and eaten often, like cheeses, yogurt, fish and eggs. Sweets and meats are eaten in small portions. In terms of fluids, water is the main beverage but wine is consumed in moderation (one serving per day for women, two servings per day for men). Instead of using margarine or butter as a fatty base, olives are used, providing ample amounts of monounsaturated fats or “healthy” fats to the consumer’s meal profile. To top it all off, physical and social activity are the sprinkles on top of this Mediterranean sundae, which are just as crucial as the crux of this way of life.
The health advantages to the Mediterranean dietary pattern are mounting year after year. Increased lifespan, improved brain function, eye health, fertility, better weight management, reduced risk of certain cancers, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis and depression are just some of the benefits. The pioneer for recognizing the merit behind this dietary pattern is Ancel Keys, one of the main researchers in the Seven Countries Study, which was conducted after World War II and spanned over 50 years. The observational study wanted to determine whether there was an association between lifestyle factors and cardiovascular disease in differing nations. The study was conducted in the USA, Finland, the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, Italy and what used to be Yugoslavia. Research showed that the inhabitants of Crete, Greece, had the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease (CVD) rates. Here is an excerpt from the study, further explaining the Crete way of life:
“He is a shepherd or small farmer, a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines. He walks to work daily and labors in the soft light of his Greek isle, midst the droning of crickets and the bray of distant donkeys, in the peace of his land. … His midday, main meal is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms, crisp vegetables, and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil. Once a week there is a bit of lamb, naturally spiced from grazing in thyme-filled pastures. Once a week there is chicken. Twice a week there is fish fresh from the sea. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes seasoned with meats and condiments. The main dish is followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts, or succulent fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes this varied and savory cuisine. This living pattern, repeated six days a week, is climaxed by a happy Saturday evening. The ritual family dinner is followed by relaxing fellowship with peers. Festivity builds to a passionate midnight dance under the brilliant moon in the field circle where the grain of the region is winnowed. … He is handsome, rugged, kindly—and virile. His is the lowest heart-attack risk, the lowest death rate, and the greatest life expectancy in the Western world.”
Other more contemporary studies also corroborate this notion of the health benefits of the Mediterranean lifestyle. The Lyon Heart Study is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that showed that CVD events/deaths were reduced for up to four years in those participants that followed the Mediterranean lifestyle. Another RCT named the PREvencion con DIeta MEDiterannea was conducted comparing a low fat to the Mediterranean “diet,” which was supplemented with either olive or nuts. The trial was stopped early due the significant reduction in CVD events in those following the Mediterranean “diet.” Another study conducted by Luciano et al. (2017) analyzed the brain size of 400 elderly adults over a three-year period. In general, brain shrinkage is one of the many features of aging. Results showed that those that followed a Mediterranean diet overall showed less brain atrophy than the control group, possibly implying better brain health than their counterparts. It has even been stated that this way of life may be comparable to interventions such as aspirins, statins, anti-hypertensives (i.e., ace-inhibitors or beta-blockers) and physical activity in terms of CVD morbidity and mortality. Moreover, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the Mediterranean “diet” as one of the three eating styles that American should pick for optimal health.
This Mediterranean way of living, dietary pattern or “diet,” whichever way you want to slice it, is an optimal medium towards healthier living. It incorporates whole foods, social gathering and physical activity, three facets that should always be part of any consumer’s life. It does not cut out any food groups, but it does emphasize moderation and portion control. Though this “diet” may be hard to tackle due to the Western diet’s stark contrasting features, it may be worth the initial challenge. It may be easier to slowly incorporate one of two facets of the “diet,” instead of chugging full force. The benefits far outweigh any risks or struggle. In fact, your 100-year-old future self may thank you for it one day!
By Melissa Papir Kolb, MS, RD