Mediterranean Diet Linked to Longer Life

Researchers Recommend Diet Low in Meat and Dairy, High in Fruits and Veggies

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on April 07, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

April 7, 2005 -- There is more evidence that eating like a villager on the Isle of Crete can help you live longer.

A study examining eating patterns in nine European countries found that people who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet lived longer than those who didn't.

Researchers say a healthy man of 60 who follows the diet, which is rich in fruits and vegetables and low in meat and dairy, can expect to live a year longer than a man of the same age who doesn't follow the diet.

"A year may not sound like much to some people," study researcher Dimitrios Trichopoulos, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "But I'm in my mid 60s, and it sounds pretty good to me."

Living to 100

Physiologist Ancel Keys was both the world's best-known champion of the Mediterranean diet and its best advertisement.

Keys was the first to notice, more than half a century ago, that heart disease was rare in Mediterranean areas like Greece and southern Italy, where olive oil and red wine were dietary staples and people ate plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Keys died late last year at the age of 100, still active and doing nutrition research until the last few years of his life.

In an interview with WebMD in 2000, he lamented the fact that the typical meat, cheese, and pasta-heavy dishes Americans encounter in Italian restaurants have little in common with traditional Mediterranean fare.

"The Mediterranean diet was nearly vegetarian, with fish and very little meat, and was rich in green vegetables," he said, adding that something got lost in the translation from Italy to the U.S. "They may call it Italian, but it's very different from the food we studied."

The newly published study involved more than 74,000 healthy men and women aged 60 and older living in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Study participants were asked about their diets, medical and smoking histories, exercise patterns, and other relevant health information. Researchers measured how closely they stuck to a Mediterranean-style diet using a special scale developed by the researchers. The findings are reported in the April 8 issue of the British Medical Journal.

Eating a Mediterranean diet was linked to a longer life. The largest association was seen in Greece and southern Italy, where people stuck more closely to the diet.

Mediterranean Diet: More Than Olive Oil

Trichopoulos says there is no single component of the Mediterranean diet that holds the key to longer life. Though the mantra of Mediterranean eating could be "olive oil good, saturated fats bad," there is more to it than that.

"In this case, the total is better than the sum of the parts," he says. "You can't point to one thing and say that is what does it."

People who follow traditional Mediterranean diets:

  • Eat mostly plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts.
  • Eat fish often but eat other animal-based foods such as red meat, poultry, and dairy sparingly.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation -- no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. While many believe that red wine offers health advantages over other forms of alcohol, Trichopoulos says that is still not clear. One drink equals 1.5 ounces of liquor (whiskey, gin, vodka, etc.), 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.
  • Don't limit fat consumption, as long as fats are derived from plants, not animals, and are not overly refined. Trichopoulos says olive oil is the best fat, but canola and soybean oils are also good.

Trichopoulos says the current mania for low-carbohydrate eating in the U.S. incorporates some elements of Mediterranean eating but not others.

"Americans tend to go to extremes when it comes to eating, and right now they hate carbohydrates and love protein," he says. "Lowering carbohydrates is probably a good thing, but too much meat-based protein is not."

Nutrition researcher Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, is a strong proponent of Mediterranean eating. But she worries that people will lose sight of the fact that there is more to good health than what you eat.

"Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese," she says. "If everyone adopted this diet but did not change anything else, it is unlikely that they would reap the benefits."

In other words, getting regular exercise and limiting calories, no matter what form they come in, is just as important as following a particular diet.

"There is no simple fix," she says. "You really have to think about the whole package. Not just what you are eating, but how much you are eating and whether you are moving. There are no shortcuts to good health."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Trichopoulos, A. British Medical Journal, April 8, 2005; online edition. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, department of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, senior scientist and director, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center of Aging, Tufts University, Boston. WebMD Feature: "Setting the Recipe Straight: Forget Pasta if You Want Real Mediterranean Food."

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