In studies of Blue Zones (where people live 100 years or more) within parts of Greece, Southern Italy, Costa Rica and Japan, certain common traits have been uncovered. Among them – dietary intake, specifically the Mediterranean diet. This is not a diet by today’s understanding of the word. Rather, it’s a way of eating healthier that has gained the attention of medical professionals because of its health benefits.
The research is amazing – and encouraging. It shows that you don’t necessarily have to transform your diet all at once to gain benefits. Even small changes, like cutting back on processed meats and hot dogs, and switching from white rice to brown rice can potentially add years to your life. According to one lead author of a study on the diet, you can reduce your chance of dying from a heart attack by 7 to 15 percent simply by replacing the soft drinks in your diet with sparkling water, or eating at least one handful of nuts or one serving of beans or lentils each day.
Although meals from the Mediterranean coast may vary by ingredient choices and cooking practices specific to each country and culture, they do share some common variables and practices.
The Mediterranean Diet
- Olive oil (the main source of fat) is used in place of butter or margarine
- Legumes- the cornerstone of the diet – at least one cup of beans, lentils or peas daily
- Whole grains
- Fresh herbs
- Spices (esp, sea salt, cinnamon, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, turmeric)
- Seafood is the protein of choice, although chicken is allowed
- Lean meat only in moderation
- Cheese and dairy in moderation
- Water is the main daily beverage.
- Limit the intake of alcohol, except occasional red wine at meal time
- Low to no sugar
- No fast food
Research shows that the biggest gains in life expectancy stemmed from eating more legumes such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts.
What’s more, many registered dietitians agree that the Mediterranean Diet encourages eating with friends and family, socializing over meals and eating your favorite foods more slowly and mindfully.
In this dietary plan, the types of fat you eat are more important than the percentages of calories from fats. These foods are nutrient-rich, containing large amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals. The benefits are not as strong when consuming any single food or nutrient; it’s a combination of several that appear to work in reversing conditions and preventing diseases.
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet:
-Improves cholesterol levels
-Reduces the risk for diabetes, dementia, memory loss, depression and breast cancer
-Linked to stronger bones, a healthier heart and longer life
-Helps maintain a healthy body weight
It’s never too late to start this mostly plant-based way of eating. Studies show that a 60-year-old who made this switch could boost his life expectancy by up to nine years, and an 80-year-old could gain about three-and-a-half years.
If you eat a lot of junk food, the earlier you change your eating habits the better. Even for people who are overweight and in poor metabolic health, the benefits they can gain from eating the nutritious foods in this diet are likely to be substantial.