Can you eat your way to a longer life? Well, yes and no. There's a substantial body of research showing that people who follow the so-called Mediterranean diet, or other plant-based plans, live longer and are less vulnerable to coronary heart disease and cancer. On the other hand, eating too much of anything -- even food filled with healthful ingredients -- is still too much. With that message of moderation in mind, let's take a look at what it is about these eating patterns that enhances longevity.
Interest in the so-called "Mediterranean diet" was triggered by the realization that people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea had some of lowest rates of coronary heart disease, and greatest longevity, in the world. This was true even though there was some variation among the cultures and diets within the region. Since then, the term generally refers to a diet that emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and fish, while reducing amounts of saturated fat, refined sugars, and meat.
Whole grains: Whole grains contain all three components of the grain: the outer layer or bran, the starchy endosperm, and the vitamin and mineral-laden inner germ. Whole grains include wheat, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, oats, bulgur, and quinoa. Refining removes much of the fiber which is linked to longevity, as well as Vitamin E and B vitamins, so aim for unprocessed grains.
Eating high-quality, unrefined grains has been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce the incidence of Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease. If you're wary of carbs, take heart: data from the Iowa Women's Health Study, tracking more than 27,000 post-menopausal women over a 17-year period, found that even those who ate only 4-7 servings of whole grains a week, were 31% less likely to die during those 17 years, than women who rarely or never ate any. That's with less than one serving a day!
Fruits and vegetables: The Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. "Eat your colors" is good advice, since the most vividly colored produce often has the most phytochemicals, or plant nutrients. Aim for half your plate to be made up of fruits and vegetables at any meal. The U.S. government recommends up to 2 ½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits per day, depending on activity level.
Olive oil: Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature. Olive oil is a hero of the Mediterranean diet thanks to its heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Other plant-based oils like safflower, soybean and sunflower oils, with a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, are also healthier choices than solid sources like butter and margarine that contain saturated fats.
Fish: Fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and mackerel are all staples of the Mediterranean diet, and are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These help keep blood vessels healthy and regulate blood pressure. Aim to eat fatty fish twice a week.
Beans: Beans, peas and lentils are a class of fiber-rich vegetables called legumes. They include garbanzos (chickpeas), black, pinto, kidney and romano beans. They're a great source of protein, filling while still low in fat, and are extremely versatile for cooking in soups and stews. Be sure and give canned legumes a good rinse to reduce the sodium often used in the canning process.
Nuts: Because nuts are high in calories, many people worried about weight gain avoid them. While you should watch your portions, most of the fat they contain is not saturated, and eating nuts several times a week has been linked to a lower incidence of heart disease. Aim for no more than a small handful a day, and avoid heavily salted or sweetened (like honey-roasted) ones.
Calcium and Milk Products: The fact that people in Mediterranean countries consume a lot of cheese and full-fat dairy products like cream, while still avoiding coronary heart disease, has confounded many researchers. More study is ongoing to sort out this "French paradox", but it's possible other factors, including smaller portions and greater physical activity, may prove to be part of the explanation. People in Mediterranean countries tend to consume more fermented milk products like yogurt, so that may also be a factor.
Wine: Whether to promote wine consumption for longevity has been somewhat controversial in North America, but the fact remains that people in Mediterranean countries drink wine, and seem to benefit from it. Moderate drinking -- about one drink per day for women, two for men -- is associated with lower risk of heart disease. More than that can increase your risk for colon or breast cancer, so don't over-indulge.
There is a wealth of scientific literature extolling the benefits of eating like people along the Mediterranean. And if you want a simple route to a great longevity diet, research has shown that this plant-based, flavorful way of eating will help keep your nutritional bases covered.
David R Jacobs, Jr, Lene Frost Andersen and Rune Blomhoff. "Whole-grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of noncardiovascular, noncancer death attributed to inflammatory diseases in the Iowa Women's Health Study." Am J Clin Nutr June 2007 vol. 85 no. 6 1606-1614
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Public Information Booklet. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion. Accessed: October 16, 2011 http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/PolicyDoc.pdf
Matthieu Maillot et al. "The shortest way to reach nutritional goals is to adopt Mediterranean food choices: evidence from computer-generated personalized diets." Am J Clin Nutr October 2011 vol. 94 no. 4 1127-1137
Panagiota N. Mitrou, PhD et al. "Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Prediction of All-Cause Mortality in a US Population. Results From the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study." Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(22):2461-2468.
The Nutrition Source: Healthy Eating Plate vs USDA Myplate Public Information Sheet. Harvard School of Public Health. Accessed: October 17, 2011 http: //www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/healthy-eating-plate-vs-usda-myplate/index.html