The Mediterranean diet is argued to be the healthiest diet in the world. It has been consistently linked with health benefits, including reduced risk heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes, asthma, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Now, researchers say the diet can increase longevity by protecting your chromosomes.
The diet is low in saturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat, high in fibre and packed with protective phytochemicals. The Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts eaten daily. Poultry and fish are the protein foods of choice; red meat is eaten no more than a few times per month. The principal fat is olive oil; butter and margarine are seldom used.
Telomeres sit on the end of chromosomes (like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces), stopping them from fraying and scrambling the genetic codes they contain. In healthy people, telomeres shorten progressively throughout life, more than halving in length from infancy to adulthood, and halving again in the very elderly.
Shorter telomeres are associated with lower life expectancy and greater risk of age-related diseases. Lifestyle factors, such as obesity, cigarette smoking and consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, have all been linked to people having shorter telomeres than typically occur in people of a similar age. Oxidative stress and inflammation have also been shown to speed up telomere shortening.
Given that fruits, vegetables, and nuts -- key components of the Mediterranean diet -- have well known antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, US researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, set out to examine whether adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with longer telomere length.
They analyzed data on 4,676 healthy middle-aged women from the Nurses' Health Study -- an ongoing study tracking the health of more than 120,000 US nurses since 1976. Participants completed detailed food questionnaires and had a blood test to measure telomere length.
A diet score ranging from 0-9 points was calculated for each participant, with a higher score representing a closer resemblance to the Mediterranean diet.
After adjusting for other potentially influential factors, the results show that greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet was significantly associated with longer telomeres. Each one-point change in diet score corresponded on average to 1.5 years of telomere aging.
However, none of the individual dietary components was associated with telomere length, underlining the importance of examining dietary patterns (all the foods that make-up your diet) in relation to health, not just single foods such whole grains or vegetables.
Source: BMJ-British Medical Journal, 2014.
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