Recently, three large studies added support for the long-term health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, as well as plant-based diets in general. A Mediterranean-style diet focuses on whole or minimally processed plant foods—lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains—along with moderate amounts of fish, limited dairy (mostly yogurt and cheese) and little red meat or sweets. Olive oil is a main source of fat, though in these American studies few people consumed as much olive oil as the typical Spaniard or Greek. A moderate intake of alcohol—usually red wine—is another key feature.
Here’s what the new studies found:
- “Younger” brains. Both a Mediterranean-style diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) plan help preserve age-related cognitive function, according to a study of 3,800 older people living in Utah, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Study participants, whose average age was 74, who adhered most closely to either diet did best on cognitive testing over the 11-year period—scoring as if they were three years younger than those who veered farthest from the diets. Whole grains, nuts and legumes were independently linked to better cognition. Like the Mediterranean diet, DASH is a semi-vegetarian plan; in addition, it emphasizes low-fat dairy products and low sodium intake, but not olive oil and wine.
- Healthier aging. Women who followed a Mediterranean-style diet in middle age were more likely to stay physically and mentally healthy later in life, according to a Harvard study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Researchers initially reviewed data about the diet and health of 10,670 female nurses in their late fifties and early sixties and then correlated this with information about their health 15 years later. Women who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet were 46 percent more likely to live past age 70 with no chronic illnesses and no major physical or cognitive impairments. Similarly, women who most closely followed the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans had a 34 percent better chance of aging well than those eating a more typical American diet. A diet based on the Guidelines is actually similar in most ways to the Mediterranean diet as defined in this study.
- Longer life. People with cardiovascular disease (such as a history of heart attack, stroke or angina) who closely followed a Mediterranean-style diet were nearly 20 percent less likely to die during an eight-year follow-up than those who veered farthest from it. This comes from another Harvard study of health care professionals (6,100 men, 11,300 women, average age 68), published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. No single food or food group was responsible for the benefit, suggesting there were “synergistic effects” of the Mediterranean diet. Even for Americans with advanced cardiovascular disease, a Mediterranean-style diet can be very beneficial, the researchers concluded.