I’ve long advocated the Mediterranean diet because of its focus on eating plants over animals — which we know are a boon to the planet (not to mention animals). It is not proselytizing and forbidding meat altogether; instead, it adheres to a flexible attitude that likes plants but leaves some wiggle room.
The Mediterranean diet is almost always at the top of the rankings for healthy diets and eating styles (as well as sustainability ratings). I used to quip that I might live longer too, if I lived in the South of France or the coast of Spain. But according to a new study led by La Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, healthcare benefits don’t depend on location.
This study is one of the few to examine the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet in non-Mediterranean contexts—and also to assess the health benefits of the Mediterranean lifestyle as a whole.
This finding is noteworthy. As explained in a statement from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health:
“In a study of adults in the United Kingdom, those who adhered to a Mediterranean lifestyle — including eating a healthy plant-based diet with limited added salt and sugar and adequate rest, exercise and socialization — were found to have a 29% lower risk of all-cause death and 28% lower risk of death from cancer compared to those who don’t follow the lifestyle.”
We’ve heard about the Mediterranean diet for a long time: It includes a diet rich in produce and grains, with limited meat, salt, and sugar. For the new study, the authors included dietary factors in the context of overall lifestyle.
The research consisted of data collected from 110,799 members of the UK Biobank cohort, a long-term population-based study of England, Wales and Scotland. The team used the Mediterranean Lifestyle Index (MEDLIFE), which is based on a questionnaire on lifestyle and dietary ratings. Participants aged 40 to 75 answered the questions according to the three categories the index measured:
- consumption of Mediterranean food: Intake of foods part of the Mediterranean diet, such as fruits and whole grains.
- Mediterranean dietary habits: Adherence to customs and practices around food, including limiting salt and drinking healthy beverages.
- Physical activity, rest, and social habits and sociability: Adherence to lifestyle habits, including taking regular naps, exercising, and spending time with friends.
Each item in the category is assigned a score—the more adherent to the Mediterranean lifestyle, the higher the score. Playing the long game, researchers followed up nine years later to analyze participants’ health outcomes.
“Among the study population, 4,247 died from all causes; 2,401 from cancer; and 731 from cardiovascular disease. Analyzing these results alongside the MEDLIFE score, the researchers observed an inverse relationship between adherence to a Mediterranean lifestyle and risk of death,” according to Harvard. Chan School.
Those with a higher MEDLIFE score were found to have a 29% lower risk of all-cause death and a 28% lower risk of cancer death compared to those with a lower MEDLIFE score.
The study authors concluded that adopting a Mediterranean lifestyle adapted to local characteristics of non-Mediterranean populations is possible and part of a healthy lifestyle.
“This study shows that it is possible for non-Mediterranean populations to adopt a Mediterranean diet using locally available products and adopt a Mediterranean lifestyle as a whole within their own cultural context,” said lead author Mercedes Sotos Prieto, Ramon y Cajal researcher at La Universidad. Autonoma de Madrid and assistant professor of environmental health at Harvard Chan School. “We looked at the transferability of lifestyles and their positive effects on health.”
So maybe we can’t all live in Marseille, but by focusing on a green, plant-based diet—and remembering to take naps and hang out with friends—it seems like we can still get a Mediterranean-style boost in longevity.
The study is published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
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