Score another one for the famed Mediterranean diet.

By “Mediterranean diet”, nutrition-health researchers mean diets that follow the traditions of rural Greece, Italy, and Spain.

The idealized Mediterranean diet relies heavily on vegetables, beans, fruits, poultry, fish, cheese, olive oil, and whole grains.

Bread and pasta are included, but in much smaller portions than Americans are used to, and always with olive oil, not butter … though its saturated fats are largely exonerated in heart disease.

What we know about the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet appears to reduce the risks of dementia, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

And as The New York Times reported in “The Island Where People Forget to Die”, some of the oldest populations in the world live on Mediterranean islands where traditional diets and lifestyles still hold sway.

The healthy, long-lived Mediterranean peoples who eat traditional diets share other key attributes: they're very active, they socialize, and they enjoy meals with family and friends.

Excepting remote islands and rural regions, many around the Mediterranean have strayed from traditional diets, and for them, extra virgin olive oil may be the healthiest remaining factor: see “Mediterranean Myths: Region's Actual Diets Differ from Ideal”.

The Mediterranean diet is usually defined as follows:
  • Cook with extra virgin olive oil
  • Use herbs and spices instead of salt
  • Drink red wine in moderation (optional)
  • Favor poultry and (especially) fish heavily over red meat
  • Eat mostly vegetables, beans, fruits (including olives), and nuts
  • Eat whole grains and pasta (preferably whole grain) in moderation
The distinction between extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and the two lower grades (“virgin” and “pure”) is critically important to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

EVOO is rich in rare, unusually potent antioxidants, which are lacking in virgin (partly refined) grade oil and totally missing from “pure” (chemically refined) oil.

Even though it's pure fat, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) gets major credit for the benefits of the Mediterranean diet … thanks largely to the beneficial effects its rare antioxidant compounds exert on our “working” genes.

Nuts are another healthful part of the diet, but they're eaten in small amounts — no more than a handful a day, to limit calorie intake.

Now, a study from Boston affirms the idea that that the Mediterranean diet helps explain the exceptional longevity of the region's rural peoples.

Nurses Study finds that the Mediterranean diet reduces a key sign of aging
Last week, researchers at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital found that women who ate Mediterranean-style diets had longer “telomeres” (Crous-Bou M et al. 2014).

Telomeres are repetitive DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes. Like the cap on a shoelace, they wear out over time.

Your telomeres get shorter every time a cell divides, and telomere length serves as a rough marker for aging. 

Shorter telomeres signal shorter life expectancy and greater risk of aging-related disease, while longer telomeres are linked to longevity.

Obesity, cigarette smoking, high intake of omega-6 fats from cheap vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed) and sugar sweetened drinks have all been linked to shorter telomeres ... which are also found in people suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Conversely, some foods and nutrients have been linked to telomere preservation: see “Omega-3s May Slow Aging”, “Magnesium Shortage Speeds Aging of America”, Vitamin Studies Paint a More Positive Prevention Picture, and “Tea May Yield Younger Cells”.

Telomere shortening is accelerated by stress and inflammation, and scientists have speculated that adherence to the Mediterranean diet – which is generally anti-inflammatory – may help preserve telomere length.

The research was led by Immaculata De Vivo, Ph.D., Associate Professor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Her team analyzed 4,676 healthy women participating in the Nurses' Health Study who'd completed a diet questionnaire and had their telomere lengths measured.

Each woman was assigned a diet score ranging from 0 to 9 points, with a higher score signifying that their reported diet bore a closer resemblance to the Mediterranean diet.

Each one-point drop from the ideal score of 9 points corresponded to an average of 1.5 years of extra aging, as indicated by telomere shortening.

The Boston team found that the women who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely had longer telomeres … and that even small changes in diet made a difference.

No individual food was associated with longer (or shorter) telomere length, so the researchers presume that the whole diet is responsible, rather than one “superfood”.

As Professor De Vivo said, “Our results further support the benefits of adherence to this diet to promote health and longevity.”

De Vivo wants to see whether they can determine which components of the Mediterranean diet are the biggest telomere protectors … both to gain insight into the biological mechanisms involved, and provide detailed guidance on healthy diets.

And she hopes to repeat the study in men … stay tuned.

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