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Mediterranean diet helps women live longer, study finds

It’s a top-rated diet that’s been tied to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, dementia and cancer.

Now, research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston has uncovered another health benefit of the Mediterranean diet: longevity.

Women who closely followed this well-researched eating pattern were nearly 25 per cent less likely to die during the long-term study. While this study focused exclusively on women, there’s abundant research to show that the Mediterranean diet is widely beneficial for everyone.

What’s more, the researchers found evidence of biological changes to help explain how the diet may reduce the risk of death.

Here’s a breakdown of the study, plus tips to incorporate this healthy eating plan into your lifestyle.

The latest research

The study, published May 31 in the journal JAMA Network Open, followed 25,315 initially healthy women, average age 55, for up to 25 years.

At the study’s outset, participants provided blood samples and diet information was obtained from questionnaires.

Health data was collected every six months for the first year and annually thereafter. Medical records and death certificates were used to determine cause of death.

Nine key components of the Mediterranean diet

Participants’ diets were assigned a Mediterranean diet score, from zero to nine, based on their regular intake of nine dietary components. A higher score indicated better adherence to the diet.

Higher intakes (defined as greater than the median/midpoint intake) of vegetables (excluding potatoes), fruit, nuts, whole grains, pulses (e.g., kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils) and fish were each given one point.

So was a higher intake of monounsaturated fat (e.g., olive oil, avocado, almonds, peanuts) compared to saturated (animal) fat.

One point was given for consuming less red and processed meats and also if alcohol intake fell between 5 and 15 grams per day. One standard drink – 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces 5 per cent beer or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits – contains 15 grams of alcohol.

Participants’ Mediterranean diet adherence was categorized as low (score 0 to 3), intermediate (4 to 5) or high (6 to 9).

Higher diet adherence, lower risk of death

Over the course of 25 years, 3,879 participants died.

Compared to women with low adherence to the Mediterranean diet, those with high adherence were 23 per cent less likely to die from any cause over the study period.

Even intermediate adherence to the Mediterranean diet offered protection. Participants in this group had a 16 per cent lower risk of all-cause mortality compared to women with low diet scores.

When the researchers adjusted for potential risk factors (smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake, menopausal status) the mortality risk reduced but remained statistically significant, meaning the finding is unlikely to be due to chance.

Higher Mediterranean diet scores were also associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Blood biomarkers of metabolism and inflammation explained the largest contribution of the diet’s health benefits, followed by triglycerides (fats), body mass index and insulin resistance.

The study’s strengths include its large size and long follow-up period.

It doesn’t prove, though, that closely following the Mediterranean diet helped participants live longer. Rather, the study found an association between the two.

Still, the new finding is consistent with other studies that suggest following the Mediterranean diet helps promote longevity.

Five ways to get started on the Mediterranean diet

Use the following tips to incorporate principles of the Mediterranean eating pattern in your lifestyle. Start by making one change and build from there.

Add vegetables to every meal

Blend baby kale or pumpkin purée into a morning smoothie. Add chopped bell pepper, spinach and sliced mushrooms to breakfast egg dishes.

Include one to two cups (or more!) of vegetables at lunch and at dinner. Begin or end each meal with a green salad. Try one new vegetable each week.

Reach for whole grains

Swap refined grains with whole grain versions such as brown rice, red rice, farro, quinoa, bulgur and barley. Look for breads and crackers made with 100-per-cent whole grains.

Try overnight oats for quick breakfasts. Or make a tabbouleh salad with bulgur or quinoa or a whole wheat pasta salad for an easy side dish.

For a quick dinner or meal prep lunch, build grain bowls with your favourite whole grain; add protein and load it with vegetables.

Embrace pulses

Add fibre- and protein-rich pulses to your summer menu with mixed bean, chickpea and lentil salads.

Make homemade black bean burgers – you’ll find lots of recipes online. Substitute bean pasta for white pasta.

Flavour with herbs and spices

Toss chopped mint and parsley into green salads. Add dill to coleslaw. Sprinkle chopped basil over grilled vegetables.

Add cinnamon to overnight oats, Greek yogurt or ground coffee before brewing. Sprinkle turmeric into scrambled eggs and egg salad.

Herbs and spices not only add flavour, they also deliver anti-inflammatory polyphenols.

Eat nuts and seeds

Enjoy a handful of nuts for a midday snack (pair nuts with fruit). Toss raw or toasted nuts or seeds into salads and bowls. Blend peanut, almond or pumpkin seed butter into smoothies and shakes

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

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