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Can a Mediterranean diet lead to a healthier, longer life?

Can what you eat affect how you age? A series of six new studies found correlations between the popular Mediterranean diet and healthy aging. But to fully reap the benefits, foodies must do more than swap butter for olive oil.

The studies looked at six different areas related to the Mediterranean diet:

  • What requirements and underlying mechanisms actually define the diet
  • Connections between the diet and physical and mental health
  • How the diet interacts with genetics to modify inflammatory responses
  • Whether it can be linked to impaired physical function among older adults
  • How a coenzyme Q10 supplement changes the diet’s effects
  • Whether the Mediterranean diet can be linked to longer, healthier lives

The studies showed generally positive results for those who follow the Mediterranean diet – as long as they properly define it and then stick to it.

“Greater clarity on how this diet is defined, in both interventions and observational studies, will be critical in the aim of achieving a consensus on how to optimally apply this dietary pattern towards maximizing healthy aging,” Dr. Michelle A. Mendez and Dr. Anne B. Newman wrote in an editorial introducing the series of papers. Newman is the editor-in-chief of the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, which published the series in Issue 73.

The diet focuses on whole grains and legumes – with as little processing as possible – as its staple foods, supplemented by several diverse servings of fresh vegetables and fruits each day. Cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds provide fat, along with moderate servings of fish. Dairy products and red meat are eaten only in very small amounts as a rare treat.

The researchers used several different measures with study participants to see how well they stuck to their diets.

While the researchers still aren’t sure how and why the Mediterranean diet works so well, they were able to observe a few effects that lead to better health. One of the articles, by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, found that the diet was correlated with lower lipid levels, protection against inflammation and genetic changes that can encourage cancer growth, antioxidant properties, and other positive effects on health.

The benefits may not be restricted to the Mediterranean diet, either. Other diets that follow the same patterns – and emphasis on fresh vegetables, grains and fruits with minimal processing – may also promote good health.

“Recent evidence suggests that the patterns of diet that may be most healthful are plant-based food patterns, where vegetables, whole grains and legumes are the dietary staples, with less meat – but not less total fat – than is typically consumed in developed countries,” Mendez and Newman wrote in their editorial.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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