(NaturalNews) Scientists are finding that those who choose to eat according to the principles of the Mediterranean diet have a lowered rate of death from all causes. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet has a beneficial effect against cardiovascular disease and is a preventative against a second heart attack. Now we are seeing that this diet extends longevity by reducing deaths from all diseases including cancer.
The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study
Researchers reported in the December 10, 2007 Archives of Internal Medicine a prospective study to investigate the Mediterranean dietary pattern in relation to mortality, confirming suggestions that the diet plays a beneficial role for health and longevity.
The study participants included 214,284 men and 166,012 women in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. During follow up for all-cause mortality from 1995 to 2005, 27,799 deaths were documented. In the first 5 years of follow up 5,985 cancer deaths and 3,451 cardiovascular disease deaths were reported. The researchers used a nine point score to assess conformity with the Mediterranean diet pattern with components including vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, monounsaturated fat-saturated fat ratio, alcohol, and meat. They calculated hazard ratios and 95% confidence intervals using age and multivariate adjusted Cox models.
Results indicated that the Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced all-cause and cause-specific mortality. In men, the multivariate hazard ratios comparing high to low conformity for all-causes, CVD, and cancer mortality were 0.79, 0.78, and 0.83. In women, an inverse association was seen with high conformity within this pattern: decreased risks that ranged from 12% for cancer mortality to 20% for all-cause mortality.
Results from this study provide strong evidence of a beneficial effect from higher conformity with the Mediterranean dietary pattern on risk of death from all causes, including deaths due to cardiovascular disease and cancer in the a U.S. population.
Americans tend to associate the word diet with restriction and deprivation. But forget this definition because the Mediterranean diet is based on the abundance of foods found in the countries of the Mediterranean Basin. The word diet in the title is used in the traditional sense, meaning a way or style of eating.
The most commonly understood version of the diet was presented by Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health in the mid-1990s. It is a diet based on "food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s", according to Willett.
The traditional Mediterranean diet has been interpreted into a Pyramid with daily physical activity at its base. Regular physical activity is seen as essential for promoting healthy weight, fitness and well-being. Typical exercises of the Mediterranean's might include walking, house cleaning, running, soccer, tennis, golf, swimming, hiking, scuba diving, ball games, skiing, surfing, yard work, dancing, weight lifting, and love making.
In ascending order, the Pyramid also includes:
* An abundance of food from plant sources, including fruits and vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Common foods on this step include pasta, rice, couscous, and polenta.
* Emphasis on a variety of minimally processed and, wherever possible, seasonally fresh and locally grown foods. Common foods include olives, avocados, grapes, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, capers, almonds, walnuts, chick peas, white beans, lentils and other beans, and peanuts.
* Olive oil as the principle fat. Total fat can range from less than 25 percent to over 35 percent of calories, with saturated fat no more than 7 to 8 percent of calories.
* Daily consumption of low to moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt
* Weekly consumption of low to moderate amounts of fish. Common fish are shellfish and sardines.
* Weekly consumption of poultry, and from zero to four eggs per week including those used in cooking and baking.
* Sweets. Common sweets are pastries, ice cream and cookies
* Meat. Common meats are veal and lamb.
It's quite interesting that the base of the U.S. diet is often meat, but meat is at the top of the Mediterranean diet, recommended to be eaten less frequently than even sweets.
Alcohol, particularly red wine, may be consumed in moderation and with meals.
One of the main explanations for the beneficial effects of the diet is thought to be the large amount of olive oil which is seen as lowering cholesterol levels in the blood. It is also known to lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Research indicates that olive oil prevents peptic ulcers and is effective in treatment of peptic ulcer disease, and may be a factor in preventing cancer. The consumption of red wine is considered a possible factor, as it contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties. Others suspect that is it not any one particular nutrient that confers the benefits, but rather the combination of nutrients found in this diet comprised of unprocessed foods.
The olive oil, nuts and fish of the diet contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides and may provide an anti-inflammatory effect helping to stabilize blood vessel lining.
The Seven Countries Study found that Cretan men had exceptionally low death rates from heart disease, despite moderate to high intake of fat. The Cretan diet is similar to other traditional Mediterranean diets, consisting mostly of olive oil, bread, fish, moderate amounts of dairy food and wine, and an abundance of fruit and vegetables.
The Lyon Diet Heart Study began as a copy of the Cretan diet, but resistance from the participants resulted in it taking a more pragmatic approach. Since the people were reluctant to move from butter to olive oil, they used a margarine based on rapeseed (canola) oil. The dietary change also included a 20% increase in vitamin C rich fruit and bread, and decreases in processed foods and red meat. This diet resulted in mortality from all causes being reduced by 70%. The study was so successful that an ethics committee decided to stop it prematurely so the results could be made immediately available to the public.
Since olive oil was not part of the diet in the Lyon Diet Heart Study, it would appear that it is not the single most important ingredient in the Mediterranean diet that it is often reported to be.
Incorporating the Mediterranean diet into your life
The principles of the diet can become part of your lifestyle based on the way you shop. Here are some things to remember.
All types of olive oil provide monounsaturated fat, but "extra virgin" olive oil is the least processed form and contains the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
Walnuts contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. All nuts are very nutritionally dense foods, so they should not be eaten in large amounts. Two ounces of nuts a day is plenty. Choose soaked or sprouted nuts. They are available from several online dealers. Buy natural peanut better, preferably the kind you grind yourself at the store. This is also available online. Keep nuts on hand for a quick snack.
Eat a variety of whole fruits and vegetables every day. Shop by color. Your selection of fruits and vegetables should reflect all the colors in the produce section. Don't try to stock up a week's worth of fruits and vegetables. Shop more frequently so your selection is as fresh as you can get it.
Substitute wild caught fish and natural chicken for all other meats except your monthly dose of red meat.
Choose yogurt and cheeses made according to tradition. If you want low or no fat cheese, choose mozzarella or any cheese that has been traditionally made from skim milk. Stay away from any yogurt or cheese that advertises itself as reduced fat, low fat, or fat free.
And don't forget that the Mediterranean is a very sunny warm place where people feel at ease outside. Let the sun shine on you, and let a breeze kiss your skin when you can.
Barbara is a school psychologist, a published author in the area of personal finance, a breast cancer survivor using "alternative" treatments, a born existentialist, and a student of nature and all things natural.