Scientists have long identified regions of the world where people live much longer than average as Blue Zones, areas home to some of the world’s oldest and healthiest. There are five Blue Zones, two of which are located in Mediterranean region: Greece and Italy. One thing that the population of the two places have in common is the strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet. So there is definitely some truth in the ubiquitous claim of numerous consumers, researchers and scientists that the seemingly simple diet is the key to hard goal of improving longevity. But after all, what is it really?
What does the Mediterranean diet consist of?
A traditional Mediterranean diet includes high proportion of vegetables, fruits, fish, beans, whole grains, along with some dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt) and wine. However, it is olive oil that ranks as the staple ingredient and accounts for the diet’s major benefits. Meat of any kind other than fish is generally discouraged, which makes the diet even more distinct in the age of greasy Western fast food. Still, what really makes the diet stand out is its health virtues. So what benefits does the Mediterranean diet offer?
What Harvard researchers found
A 2015 research led by Immaculata De Vivo, associate professor at Harvard Medical School is one of the most comprehensive studies to confirm the link between the Mediterranean diet and longevity. De Vivo and her team looked at data from nearly 5,000 healthy middle-aged women and discovered that those who adopted a Mediterranean diet were less likely to be obese, had lower risks of chronic issues such as cardiovascular disease and overall had better health in late life. After controlling for other lifestyle choices like smoking and physical exercise, the researchers still found that the Mediterranean diet had a powerful effect on the subjects’ longevity. They concluded that the effect had something to do with cell structure: Women who ate a Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres.
Telomere: The indicator of age
Telomeres are located at the end of your chromosomes, the rod-like structures that contain DNA – the blueprint of life. Telomeres are very important as they protect your genetic information, ensuring normal biological function and development. Telomeres are seen by scientists and doctors as indicator of aging and life expectancy as they shorten during human lifespan; they shrink by half from infancy to adulthood, and again by half when we grow old. But telomeres can be prematurely shortened by external factors, such as pollution, smoking, overconsumption of saturated fat, etc.
Why the Mediterranean diet is so good
The diet is made up of fresh fruits, vegetables and olive oil, all of which contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory chemicals in abundance. They help telomeres offset against the negative lifestyle and environmental factors, which leads to longer telomeres and, as a result, higher life expectancy and better health. Interestingly, though the authors of the study stressed that all the components of the Mediterranean diet contributed to its effects on longevity, it is olive oil, a superfood with a lot of health benefits on its own, that is widely credited with improving the flavor of vegetables and making them more delicious. Indeed, a salad can’t be complete without its dressing, and olive oil is the healthiest choice.
Aside from its nutritional value, the Mediterranean diet is also associated with a lot of traditions vital to good health. For example, a true Mediterranean meal is always a shared meal in which family members, friends or relatives attend and chat with each other. Eating together greatly increases people’s health by improving their mood and prevents them from eating too much. Such values help transcend the significance of Mediterranean diet beyond gastronomical boundary as it joined the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.
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