The Mediterranean diet: Two more reason it’s the ‘gold standard’ for longevity


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Jun 30, 2023

The Mediterranean diet: Two more reason it’s the ‘gold standard’ for longevity

Vegetables for sale at the farm stand in New York.ELIZABETH BICK/The New York Times News Service The Mediterranean diet, which features an emphasis on plant foods, is considered the “gold standard”

Vegetables for sale at the farm stand in New York.ELIZABETH BICK/The New York Times News Service

The Mediterranean diet, which features an emphasis on plant foods, is considered the “gold standard” dietary pattern in terms of the wide range of health benefits it offers.

Studies have associated adherence to the eating pattern with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Research also suggests that the Mediterranean diet can help ease arthritic joint pain and improve fertility.

Now, findings from two new studies add to the large evidence base that supports the Mediterranean way of eating. Here’s what to know.

According to a new study published this month in JAMA Network Open, following a Mediterranean diet during pregnancy can improve a toddler’s neurodevelopment

Neurodevelopment refers to the brain’s development of neurological pathways responsible for the ability to learn and focus, as well as to develop memories and social skills.

The findings come from Improving Mothers for a Better Prenatal Care Trial Barcelona, a randomized controlled trial that involved 1,221 pregnant women who were at high risk of delivering a baby small for gestational age (smaller than usual for the number of weeks of pregnancy).

The researchers assigned participants to one of three groups: 1) a Mediterranean diet intervention, 2) a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention or 3) standard care.

During the study, women in the Mediterranean diet group met regularly with a dietitian and were given recipes, weekly shopping lists and meal plans. They also received two litres of extra virgin olive oil and 450 g of walnuts each month.

The researchers assessed the developmental functioning of 626 two-year-old children born to these participants. The toddlers were scored on five domains: cognitive, language, motor skills, social-emotional and adaptive behaviour.

Compared to children of mothers who received standard care during pregnancy, children of those who adhered to the Mediterranean diet scored significantly higher in the cognitive and social-emotional domains.

Past studies have linked an unhealthy diet during pregnancy – e.g., one that’s low in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fish and high in overly processed foods – to poorer neurodevelopment in young children.

It’s proposed that a poor diet can cause inflammation which may interfere with brain development during the prenatal period.

What does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

The beneficial effects observed with the Mediterranean diet are believed to be owing to its anti-inflammatory effects. Several of the diet’s components – healthy fats from fish and extra virgin olive oil, antioxidant vitamins, fibre and numerous phytochemicals – are thought to work together to keep inflammation at bay.

These new findings suggest that a healthy anti-inflammatory diet during pregnancy has persistent effects on cognition and behaviour in early childhood, a time when the brain continues to develop.

The traditional Mediterranean lifestyle – which includes a Mediterranean diet, daily physical activity, adequate rest and social participation – has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, frailty, pain, metabolic syndrome and premature death.

Most of the evidence for this lifestyle comes from Mediterranean countries. Little is known, however, about the potential benefits of a Mediterranean lifestyle in countries outside of its region of origin.

Is it possible to transfer this way of living to non-Mediterranean populations?

New research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published this month in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, suggests the answer is yes.

The study assessed the habits of 110,799 middle-aged and older adults from the UK Biobank, a large-scale prospective study with genetic, physical and health data collected from 500,000 individuals across the United Kingdom.

The researchers used diet and lifestyle assessments to calculate a Mediterranean lifestyle (MEDLIFE) index for each participant upon entry into the study.

The MEDLIFE index was based on three categories: 1) Mediterranean food consumption (e.g., beans and lentils, nuts, fruit, vegetables, fish), 2) Mediterranean dietary habits (e.g., limiting salt and sugar-sweetened beverages, preference for whole grains) and 3) physical activity, rest, social habits and conviviality.

Higher MEDLIFE scores indicated greater adherence to the Mediterranean lifestyle.

After a follow up period of nine years, 4,247 participants had died, including 2,401 from cancer.

Compared to people with low MEDLIFE scores, those with high MEDLIFE scores had a 29-per-cent lower risk of dying from any cause and a 28-per-cent lower risk of dying from cancer.

To arrive at these conclusions the researchers accounted for potential risk factors including sex, age, education, smoking and calorie intake.

Adherence to each category of the MEDLIFE index was independently tied to protection from all-cause and cancer mortality.

These findings provide new evidence that adopting the Mediterranean diet using locally available foods is associated with longevity benefits. They also strongly suggest that the overall Mediterranean way of life is protective of premature death.

Each component of the Mediterranean lifestyle – healthy diet, adequate sleep, physical activity, social support and integration – is believed to play a role in curbing inflammation, resulting in numerous anti-aging effects at the cellular level.

In so doing, the Mediterranean lifestyle may guard against chronic disease and mortality.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD