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Want to Live Longer? Try a Mediterranean Diet

By Jane Hart, MD

It is well known that eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables can promote health and prevent disease. New research confirms that Mediterranean-style eating habits may reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and moderate amounts of fish, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. Olive oil is recommended for cooking and a person may enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner, but red and processed meats and sugar-based foods should be avoided or only eaten a few times a month.

A healthy diet promotes a long life

Following the Mediterranean-style eating pattern has been highly researched for its impact on health, and has been shown to lower cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and promote weight loss. The authors of the current review, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at 12 studies that included a total of more than 1.5 million participants and examined the role of the Mediterranean diet on health and death rates. In these studies, people were followed on their diets from 4 to 18 years. Six of the studies included Mediterranean populations and the remaining were American or European populations.

People who ate a diet that closely followed the Mediterranean diet had a reduced risk of death from all causes, and specifically death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, compared with people who did not closely follow such a diet; eating, for instance, more red and processed meats, fewer vegetables, and so forth. In addition, people who closely followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

“A Mediterranean diet has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the occurrence of diseases in industrialized and non-industrialized countries,” said Francesco Sofi and his colleagues from the University of Florence, Florence, Italy. “All the major scientific associations [for example, the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association], in fact, strongly encourage people to consume a Mediterranean-like dietary pattern to reduce their risk of disease.”

Tips for following a Mediterranean diet

  • Eat an abundance and variety of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Eat fish or poultry up to a few times each week.
  • Cook with olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat.
  • Enjoy one or two glasses of red wine with dinner.
  • Add nuts to your diet (but eat them in moderation, as nuts are high in fat).
  • Avoid red and processed meats. Advocates of the Mediterranean diet suggest treating red meat like chocolate: a delicacy to be enjoyed rarely.

Says Sofi, “The Mediterranean diet, representing the dietary pattern usually consumed among the populations bordering the Mediterranean sea, has been widely reported to be a model of healthy eating for its contribution to a favorable health status and a better quality of life.”

(BMJ 2008;337:a1344 doi:10.1136/bmj.a1344)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.

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