The Mediterranean diet: A path to longevity, healthy aging and weight loss

The Mediterranean diet is a pattern of eating that incorporates ingredients and cuisine from the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Although the word “diet” is used, the emphasis is more on what to eat, as opposed to what not to. A Mediterranean-style diet encourages the consumption of whole foods, most of which are plants. Research results praise the Mediterranean diet for its protective benefits that relate to heart health, diabetes, and certain kinds of cancer. With a potential link to longevity, this eating pattern just may be the perfect fit for a long and healthy life.

While you may not care about how you look in a swimsuit when you’re 80, weight management, exercise, and diet still play a key role in healthy aging. Eating foods that are nutrient-dense — while at the same time maintaining a healthy weight — can aid in keeping all systems running and decrease your risk for disease (or disease recurrence). (Where “all systems” are concerned, think cardiovascular, skeletal, gastrointestinal, and neurological, to name just a few.)

What can I eat on the Mediterranean diet?

While there is no single definition of a Mediterranean-style diet, there are key themes. Overall, there is an emphasis on plant-based, whole foods. While this doesn’t mean cutting out animal products, most food choices come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans in their natural form.

One plant that’s particularly popular in the Mediterranean is the olive tree. A staple in the Mediterranean, extra virgin olive oil is a great example of an unsaturated fat. Olive oil is ideally used as a replacement of saturated fats like butter and coconut oil in cooking. Worried about flavor? Open your spice cupboard! Herbs and spices like cumin, garlic, oregano, and thyme can boost the taste of your dishes without adding unwanted sodium.

As mentioned, animal products are limited in a Mediterranean pattern. Eating fish, however, is encouraged. Cold-water fish like tuna, salmon, and trout are a few examples which contain the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re not a fish lover, white meat skinless poultry would be next on the list. Red meats (think mammals) and processed meats are eaten less often, and in smaller amounts.

The Mediterranean diet provides fiber, key nutrients, and fewer calories

When it comes to weight loss, most of us know the general principles of “calories in” and “calories out.” While this is both important and true, there’s more to it than that! Maintaining a calorie-controlled diet can be accomplished in many ways — some of which are unhealthy. Where a Mayo Clinic Diet version of Mediterranean is concerned, calories, sustainability, and health are all taken into consideration. This plant-based meal plan provides fiber, key nutrients, and fewer calories.

Fiber from plants — like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes — is linked to both longevity and weight management. High-fiber intake is also helpful for maintaining digestive health, lowering cholesterol, controlling blood sugar, and satiety. This concept of feeling fuller for longer periods of time can be critical during weight loss. Foods like fruits and vegetables also give us high-nutrient density with low-energy density. That’s a win-win! While “nutrient density” refers to beneficial nutrients that include vitamins and minerals, “calorie-density” is measured by calories which are relative to portion size.

By including all food groups — as opposed to eliminating them (which other diets encourage) — the Mediterranean diet provides both well-round nutrition and sustainability. Have you ever been on a diet that either eliminated an entire food group or made you feel guilty for eating something like oatmeal or a banana? When considering any diet for weight loss, it’s important to ask yourself: “How long can I stay on this?” If your answer is anything short of “forever,” it may be time to adapt. A diet that highly restricts any food group also puts you at risk of missing out on important nutrients.

The Mediterranean diet is recognized by multiple organizations as a dietary pattern which can promote health and decrease the risk of chronic disease. People afflicted with obesity are at increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Pairing a Mediterranean eating pattern with weight loss further reduces risk. And while obesity alone raises the likelihood of insulin resistance and diabetes, high adherence to the Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower risk of metabolic syndrome. It should be noted that the Mediterranean diet consistently rates as one of the "Best Diets".

Although animal proteins — such as those from red meat, dairy, and eggs — are eaten in moderation on this plan, there is no lack of protein sources. Adequate protein during weight loss and aging is important for maintaining muscle mass and metabolism. Primary sources of protein on a Mediterranean diet include fish, seafood, and beans. Saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars are also limited, thus making it easier to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods — which often contribute empty calories. While calorie needs lower with age, nutrient needs increase — so it’s important to make every choice count!

This eating-style can protect the heart and brain!

It may not be a coincidence that Italy and Greece contain two of the five “Blue Zones” — areas of the world where people statistically live the longest. Several studies have shown that diets which are rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish correspond with lower frequency of chronic disease and increased longevity. In addition to being home to the highest percentage of centenarians, the Blue Zones were also found to have fewer diagnoses of heart disease and cancer among their residents.  

The Nurses’ Health Studies have collected data on thousands of women. This data included their dietary habits. One study of this cohort — which consisted of more than 4,000 women — showed an association between high adherence to the Mediterranean diet with longer “telomeres” — or DNA sequences that are considered a biomarker of aging. Research attributes this to the nutrient-rich properties of the diet and “polyphenols” — a phytonutrient which improves cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin resistance, and inflammation. Even when adjustments are made for confounding factors like age, gender, exercise, body mass index, and smoking, a Mediterranean diet is inversely associated with all-cause mortality.

 The Lyon Diet Heart and PREvención con DIeta MEDiterránea (PREDIMED) studies are two randomized controlled trials that examined and compared a Mediterranean-style diet against other types, along with their impact on health. In both trials, subjects assigned to a Mediterranean diet had reduced instances of cardiovascular disease and death. This may be a result of the diet’s richness in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be cardioprotective.

 In addition to its heart-health benefits, the Mediterranean is great for the brain, too! The diet’s emphasis on plants leads to a rich intake of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Blueberries, tea, and olive oil are all examples of foods that have been linked to protecting the brain against age-related neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Ready to try a Mediterranean-style diet?

While it is only one of the Mayo Clinic Diet’s seven meal plans, a Mediterranean-style diet can be an excellent approach to healthy aging and reaching or maintaining a sustainable weight. While certain items — like seafood or tarragon — may be foreign to your kitchen, start with what you know. Fill your grocery cart with your favorite fruits, veggies, and lean proteins. Use extra virgin olive oil as your main cooking oil. And remember to go light on the red meat and ultra-processed foods.

The Mayo Clinic Diet provides recipes, grocery lists, and personalized portion sizes to its members as they strive to achieve a healthier weight. Additionally, the Mayo Clinic Diet can help in the recommendation of exercise plans and also provides support from peers and experts.

Wondering what a day of Mediterranean-style eating might look like? Check out a sample Mediterranean meal plan from the Mayo Clinic Diet.

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