Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Four ways to add 15 years to your life

The Mediterranean diet is once again making headlines with this week's publication of a study showing that this way of eating, paired with other healthy lifestyle habits, can extend our lifespan by more than a decade!

Women, especially, stand to benefit from adopting healthy habits: by eating a Mediterranean diet, exercising regularly, not smoking and maintaining a healthy body weight, they can extend their life by up to 15 years, according to a study from Maastricht University in the Netherlands published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For men, the effect of such healthy lifestyle habits is a smaller but nonetheless substantial lifespan increase of 8.5 years.

In this Netherlands Cohort Study (NLCS) the nutritional and lifestyle habits of 120,000 research participants were measured in 1986. The information was used to calculate a healthy lifestyle score that combined four factors: not smoking, being physically active for more than 30 minutes per day, adhering to a Mediterranean diet, and having a healthy body weight (BMI between 18.5 and 25).

In this study, the Mediterranean diet was defined as involving a high intake of vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, fish, whole grains, monounsaturated fat rather than saturated fat, low meat intake and alcohol consumption of between a half and two glasses per day.

The article confirms findings by previous investigations. Another European study showed that elderly people eating a Mediterranean diet who hadn't smoked for 15 years or longer, undertook regular physical activity and drank a moderate amount of alcohol were 65% more likely to outlive those who had none of these healthy habits and were 60% less likely to die of cancer.

Elsewhere, the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study found that eating a Mediterranean diet not only protected its 605 participants from cardiovascular disease, but also from cancer. Patients in the experimental group were encouraged to follow a regimen rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, to replace some meat with fish, to use healthy oils (especially omega-3 fats), and were allowed to drink moderate amounts of red wine with meals. After four years, they were found to be 61% less likely to develop cancer than members of the control group they were being compared to and who were eating the American Heart Association's so-called prudent diet!

According to the new study's author, Piet van den Brandt, Professor of Epidemiology at Maastricht University, those elements of the Mediterranean diet that appeared to have the biggest impact on the lower mortality rates in women are nuts, vegetables and alcohol intake.

This may be something of a simplification, and lest you rush off to cook up a huge pile of vegetables topped with nuts and washed down with a glass of red, I'd like to suggest that several additional factors may be just as important, especially when it comes to cancer prevention.

As many studies bear out (they are discussed in Zest for Life), a wide variety of vegetables, rather than the outright amount, may most effectively enhance our health. So rather than eating a pound of kale every day, you're better off enjoying an ever-changing variety of multi-colored, multi-flavored vegetables prepared in lots of different ways and combinations.

One of the best ways to ensure variety is to eat with the changing seasons. For example, you might choose asparagus, spring onions and peas in springtime; peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, cucumbers and sweet lettuces in the summer; mushrooms, squash, cabbages, sweet potatoes or onions during fall and more cabbages, carrots, leeks, bitter leaves and celery root in the winter. (Some of these grow during more than one season, thus further increasing your choice.)

If you don't know what's in season, start shopping at a farmers' market or sign up to a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme - local farmers are pretty good at knowing what's in season because they're growing it! (For more information, see the USDA's CSA information page.)

Quality is another important factor. Vegetables grown in rich, healthy soil under open skies and sometimes harvested only hours before you eat them (farmers' markets or CSAs make this possible) are more likely to give your body what it needs than intensively reared hot-house vegetables that were trucked half-way around the world to a supermarket near you. Similarly, there is increasing evidence that eggs, dairy products and meat from pastured, free-ranging animals is more nutritious than those of their intensively reared counterparts.

Lastly, pleasure is, to me, a vital ingredient in any healthy diet. The traditional Mediterranean diet, which treasures mealtime conviviality and the guilt-free enjoyment of tasty home-cooked  food, certainly provides it. Taking time to shop for healthy ingredients, to prepare simple  meals and to savor them - ideally with people whose company we enjoy - is a thoroughly life-affirming process. How many years this might add to our lives is anybody's guess; but that it will enhance our enjoyment of our time on earth is certain.

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