The Mediterranean diet — rich in olive oil, fish, and plant foods (plus a glass of wine with meals) and low in dairy and meat — has long been praised for its health benefits, particularly for the brain and heart, which promote longevity. Now, researchers say they have a better understanding why this diet contributes to a longer life span: It's good for your DNA.
In a study published in the BMJ, the researchers found that the diet is associated with longer telomeres, the protective structures at the end of chromosomes. Shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter life expectancy and a greater risk of age-related illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.
"Certain lifestyle factors like obesity, sugary sodas, and smoking have been found to accelerate telomere shortening, and now our research suggests the Mediterranean diet can slow this shortening," study co-author Immaculata De Vivo told The Boston Globe.
For the study, researchers examined nutritional data from 4,676 healthy, middle-aged women and rated each woman's adherence to the Mediterranean diet on a scale of zero to nine, based on the following nine components: "vegetables (excluding potatoes), fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish, monounsaturated:saturated fatty acid ratio, red and processed meats, and moderate alcohol intake."
Using blood tests, researchers measured the participants' telomere lengths for more than 20 years. They controlled for other lifestyle factors that may have affected the results, such as body mass index, physical activity, reproductive history, exercise, smoking, and age.
They found that the higher the score for adherence to the diet, the longer the telomeres. Each one-point change in diet score, the researchers estimate, appeared to add about 1.5 years of life.
But they didn't prove that any of the individual dietary components was associated with telomere length, which, the researchers say, shows that there's no single superfood that can tack years onto your life; it's the entire diet that's important.
So eat like you would on the shores of Crete — with some charred octopus, crusty bread dunked in olive oil-rich hummus, and a glass of red wine. It might make you live longer. Out of all the things you do to improve your health, this one just might end up being your favorite.