Harvard Health Publications

Adopt a Mediterranean diet now for better health later

Posted By Heidi Godman On November 6, 2013

It’s been a big year for the Mediterranean diet. Convincing evidence published in 2013 has shown that this kind of eating pattern is effective at warding off heart attack, stroke, and premature death. While you probably get the biggest payoff by adopting such a diet early in life, a new study shows that doing it during midlife is good, too.

Researchers looked at the dietary habits of more than 10,000 women in their 50s and 60s and compared them to how the women fared health-wise 15 years later. Women who followed a healthy diet during middle age were about 40% more likely to live past the age of 70 without chronic illness and without physical or mental problems than those with less-healthy diets. The healthiest women were those who ate more plant foods, whole grains, and fish; ate less red and processed meats; and had limited alcohol intake. That’s typical of a Mediterranean-type diet, which is also rich in olive oil and nuts. The report appeared yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Why would your menu in middle age protect your health later in life? “Several mechanisms may be involved, including lowering inflammation and oxidative stress, both systemically and within the central nervous system. These are two general pathways underlying many age-related chronic diseases and health conditions, such as age-related brain diseases and mental health. Other potential mechanisms include notably improving glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity,” explains lead author Cécilia Samieri, a researcher at Université Bordeaux in France, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School.

Good food is a pretty powerful health booster. Whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables are packed with fiber, which slows digestion and helps control blood sugar. Monounsaturated fats in olive oil, nuts, and fish can have anti-inflammatory effects, which may help stave off heart disease and many other conditions.

That Mediterranean-style diets have health benefits isn’t necessarily new. Past research has shown that this type of eating pattern can help lower cholesterol, help with weight loss, improve rheumatoid arthritis, and reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and various types of cancer.

What is new is that the fast-growing mountain of scientific evidence about the diet’s benefits is now at Swiss Alps level, and many health experts are hoping you’ll be inspired to start the journey to better health Mediterranean-style. Just do it slowly, cautions Stacey Nelson, a dietitian from Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s not realistic to make the changes overnight, but you can start with small changes,” she explains.

First, it’s important to understand the elements of a Mediterranean-type diet:

  • Base every meal on fruits, vegetables, whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa and bulgur), olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes (lentils, dried peas and beans), seeds, herbs and spices.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week.
  • Eat moderate portions of cheese and yogurt daily to weekly.
  • Eat moderate portions of poultry and eggs every two days or weekly.
  • Eat red meat sparingly or limit to three-ounce portions.
  • Drink plenty of water each day, and drink wine in moderation—no more than one (5-ounce) glass a day for women, two glasses per day for men.

To jump-start your effort, here are five tips:

  1. Sauté food in olive oil, not butter.
  2. Eat more fruits and vegetables by having them as a snack or adding them to other recipes
  3. Choose whole grains instead of refined breads and pastas
  4. Substitute a fish meal for red meat at least twice per week
  5. Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk from 2% or whole.

It also helps to make small swaps for foods you’re already eating. For example, instead of using mayonnaise on your sandwich, try a hummus spread. Here are some more suggestions:

Instead of this:

Try this Mediterranean diet option:

Crackers, chips, pretzels and ranch dip Celery, carrot or pepper strips and salsa
White rice Quinoa
Sandwiches with white bread or rolls Sandwich fillings in whole wheat tortillas
Hamburgers Salmon croquettes
Full-fat ice cream Pudding made with skim or 1% milk
Eggs with Hollandaise sauce Eggs with salsa

Suggestions courtesy of Stacey Nelson, Massachusetts General Hospital

You can eventually work up to swapping entire meals, such as ditching beef burgundy over white rice in favor of sautéed scallops over whole grain penne pasta.

Make the transition gradually over weeks or months so your new eating style becomes a habit and not a fad. Permanent lifestyle change in midlife is what will help get you to the goal of good health in old age.

Related Information: Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition

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