Instead of combing grocery store aisles for miracle diet ingredients, consider this: the healthiest eating plan is mind-blowingly simple. It involves consuming more vegetables, fruits, and protein, and fewer processed carbohydrates.
That’s the conclusion of a growing body of research, which suggests the best way to eat to maximize your chances of a long and healthy life is to seek out whole foods. There are a variety of names for this type of eating plan. Some call it Mediterranean, others call it “plant-based.” But the gist is the same: a regimen that centers around vegetables, incorporates some types of protein and fat, and limits heavily processed foods and refined carbohydrates like the kind found in bagels and breakfast bars.
Fill your plate with plants like spinach, tomatoes, and beans, studies suggest. Top that off with proteins and fats from salmon, nuts, and eggs, and you’ll be more likely to see benefits including weight loss, a stronger heart, fewer depressive symptoms, and even a longer life.
In the latest study highlighting the benefits of this diet, researchers at Italy’s Neuromed Institute found that those who ate the most like Mediterraneans were significantly less likely to die from any cause than their peers who did not. Their research, published last week in the British Journal of Nutrition, looked at data on close to 12,000 people and found that the Mediterranean diet could be a powerful protective shield.
“The more you follow the Mediterranean diet, the greater the gain in terms of mortality risk reduction,” Licia Iacoviello, head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Nutritional Epidemiology at the Neuromed Institute, said in a statement.
Eating like a Mediterranean for a longer, healthier life
- Flickr/With Wind
For the latest study, scientists performed two analyses. First, they scored the diets of 5,200 people over age 65 to determine how closely they followed a Mediterranean eating plan, based on a widely used dietary questionnaire. Each participant got a score from 0-9 (9 being the most Mediterranean-like; 0 being the least). Then the researchers followed the participants for eight years, noting any deaths and their causes.
The team found that people who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet were significantly less likely to die. Those who ate the least like a Mediterranean, on the other hand, faced a higher risk of death.
For the second part of the study, researchers analyzed six additional studies on diet and mortality. Including the participants in their own study, the total number of people analyzed amounted to nearly 12,000. Collectively, that analysis also found a link between sticking to the Mediterranean diet and living longer.
In addition to potentially prolonging life, eating like a Mediterranean also appears to help protect against some of the mental declines that come with age, such as slowed cognitive performance, according to a study published last summer in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
For that research, scientists analyzed the diets of 6,000 older people against their performance on a range of cognitive tests like word lists and counting exercises. Those whose eating plans lined up with Mediterranean-style diets did significantly better than the people who didn’t eat like Mediterraneans.
In fact, the more closely aligned people’s diets were with a Mediterranean-style plan, the lower their risk of scoring poorly on the quizzes.
“These findings lend support to the hypothesis that diet modification may be an important public health strategy to protect against neurodegeneration during aging,” Claire McEvoy, the lead author of the paper and a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, wrote in the paper.
Adding ‘life to years, not just years to life’
Researchers still aren’t sure why Mediterranean-style eating plans are so beneficial for the brain and body, but they have some clues.
The diet is rich in antioxidants and two types of healthy fat: monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. Previous studies have found a link between these ingredients and a reduced risk of dementia, as well as higher cognitive performance.
The green vegetables and berries emphasized in one version of the Mediterranean diet called the MIND diet have also been shown to help protect against progressive loss of the structure or function of brain cells. This loss, known as neurodegeneration, is a key characteristic of diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Mediterranean-style diets also do a good job of satisfying all of your body’s needs – the eating plan satiates muscles that crave protein, soothe the digestive system with fiber, and supply tissues and bones with vitamins.
“We think that our data launch an important message in terms of public health,” Giovanni de Gaetano, another author on the recent paper, said in a statement. “We must add life to years, not just years to life.”