By John Salak –
The Mediterranean Diet—it just sounds like someplace you want to be and something you want to eat. Now there is growing evidence that you should listen to both your heart and your appetite. A series of recent studies shows that a diet largely focused on fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil and fish (and maybe some red wine) and which is low in red meat and saturated fats can help fight aging-related diseases, improve critical gut health, lower blood sugar levels and help individuals maintain healthy weight levels.
The University of Minnesota Medical School, for example, recently reported that olive oil in Mediterranean diets may be an essential component to expanding lifespans and fighting age-related diseases.
Previous studies of this diet had tied red wine consumption to its health benefits because it contains resveratrol, which activates a certain pathway in cells known to increase lifespan and fight related diseases. However, researchers in Minnesota found that it may be the fat in olive oil that’s actually triggering the age-enhancing pathway. The study’s authors were nonetheless quick to add that olive oil alone (or red wine) isn’t enough to generate far-reaching benefits. They stressed that its consumption must be augmented by limited fasting, proper caloric intake and exercise to secure the best results.
“We found that the way this fat works is it first has to get stored in microscopic things called lipid droplets, which is how our cells store fat. And then, when the fat is broken down during exercising or fasting, for example, is when the signaling and beneficial effects are realized,” explained Dr. Doug Mashek, a professor at the university who worked on the study.
In related research, Minnesota researchers also found that individuals eating a Mediterranean diet for a year boosted the types of gut bacteria linked to healthy aging. This discovery may be critical to offsetting advanced physical frailty and cognitive problems that appear in older people.
Early research tied poor diet, which is often seen in older people, especially those in residential care centers, to lower levels of essential gut bacteria (microbiome) that helps offset frailty. The University of Minnesota responded by analyzing how the gut microbiome of 612 people aged 65 to 79 fared when they were on the Mediterranean diet for 12 months.
It found that the diet led to microbiome changes that seemed to help produce beneficial short chain fatty acids, while reducing bacteria that helps generate bile acids, which can heighten the risk of bowel cancer, insulin resistance, fatty liver and cell damage. Researchers also found that the diet helped stabilize the gut ecosystem, which pushed out microbes associated with frailty.
Ultimately, they acknowledged that the connection between diet, microbiome and an individual’s health is a complex issue. But self-regulating food consumption is a powerful tool in fight for healthy aging.
The Mediterranean diet also helps in weight loss and improves blood sugar levels. New Zealand’s University of Otago focused on comparing the Mediterranean diet to the paleo diet and limited fasting among 250 individuals over a 12-month period. All three diets result in weight loss of approximately 5 to 10 pounds during the test period. Those on the Mediterranean diet, however, also showed marked improvements in their blood surge levels.
Researchers acknowledged their aim was to show how diets worked in the “real world” where participants didn’t receive ongoing support from third parties, such as a dietitian.
The results were encouraging with an overriding caveat.
“This work supports the idea that there isn’t a single ‘right’ diet — there are a range of options that may suit different people and be effective,” reported Dr. Melyssa Roy, the study’s Co-lead author. “Like the Mediterranean diet, intermittent fasting and paleo diets can also be valid healthy eating approaches — the best diet is the one that includes healthy foods and suits the individual.”
The key “real world” element is staying with the diet, according to the report’s other Co-lead author Dr Michelle Jospe. Participants who didn’t or couldn’t stay on any of these diets were likely to see blood sugar level rise while also gaining the pounds they lost. Here again, the Mediterranean diet scored well in relative terms.
“Our participants could follow the diet’s guidelines more closely than the fasting and paleo diets and were more likely to stay with it after the year, as our retention rates showed,” she explained.
So, what’s not to like about the Mediterranean diet. Apparently, it looks good, tastes good and seems good for you.