A Mediterranean-type diet -- rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits and olive oil -- indeed appears to lower the risk of death, researchers said last week.
After following more than 22,000 adults in Greece for almost four years, the scientists found that people who closely followed the Mediterranean-type diet were less likely to die of any cause, including the major killers heart disease and cancer.
Previous studies have shown that people living in Mediterranean regions tend to live longer than North Americans and people from Northern Europe, and this latest research adds further evidence to the theory that Mediterranean peoples could be eating their way towards long life.
The current study, appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine, was conducted in people who were apparently healthy, but previous research has shown that following a Mediterranean-type diet can also help people with illnesses, like heart disease.
The traditional Mediterranean diet contains many components, including a high intake of fruits and vegetables, nuts and cereals, and olive oil. Followers of the diet often have wine with their meals, regularly down fish and dairy products -- largely in the form of cheese and yogurt, and only rarely eat meat and poultry.
During the study, the research team surveyed 22,043 adults in Greece about their eating habits, noting how closely each person followed the traditional Mediterranean diet. The researchers then followed participants for 44 months, noting who died, and of what cause. After almost four years, the more closely a person followed the Mediterranean diet at the outset of the study, the less likely he was to die of any cause.
In addition, people who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely than others were also 33 percent less likely to die from heart disease, and 24 percent less likely to die from cancer.
No single component appeared to reduce the risk of death. This finding suggests that each component has only a small effect, visible only when all are combined, or that the effects of the different components interact, causing benefits only when combined.
In an accompanying editorial, experts from Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston write that in many countries near the Mediterranean, including Greece, dietary habits are changing, with more people embracing Western diets filled with saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. As evidence of this shift, the prevalence of obesity in Greece has risen "dramatically" in recent years.
The researchers agree that this trend is occurring, but noted that older generations and people living in rural areas in Greece continue to follow the Mediterranean style of eating.
Furthermore, he said, some young, educated people are rediscovering the benefits of the diet, and changing their eating habits accordingly.
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