The Mediterranean diet is a diverse diet that emphasizes plant-based foods and fish over processed foods and red meat. This eating plan is rich in fruits and vegetables and contains healthy fats from sources like olive oil, seeds, and nuts. It’s an unprocessed style of eating that’s satisfying and also may offer longevity benefits. In fact, the Mediterranean diet tops the list of the healthiest diets in the world because of its emphasis on unprocessed foods and plants, but can it slow aging too?
The Mediterranean Diet and the Health of Your Microbiome
Your intestinal tract is made up of trillions of gut bacteria. This diverse array of bacteria plays a key role in digestive and immune system health. Science is only beginning to tap into the role the microbiome plays in health, aging, and longevity. What scientists know so far is a more diverse gut microbiome seems to be best for long-term health. Could a Mediterranean diet help keep our gut microbiomes healthy too?
A recent study looked at the impact of the Mediterranean diet on the gut microbiome. In the study, researchers analyzed the gut microbiomes of 612 people before and after they ate a Mediterranean diet or their usual diet for 12 months. Studies show that changing how you eat can alter your gut microbiome within a few days to a few weeks. It happens faster than you might think! What they found was those who switched to a Mediterranean diet experienced significant changes to the composition of their microbiome and the changes were positive.
How beneficial is a Mediterranean diet to your gut microbiome? The researchers found that the subjects who switched to a Mediterranean diet experienced a decline in gut bacteria associated with chronic health problems such as fatty liver and insulin resistance. They also showed an increase in health-promoting gut bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are beneficial to the colon and may lower the risk of colon cancer because of their anti-inflammatory effects. These are some of the most common health problems that increase as we age.
Another way we age is by losing muscle mass and strength that leads to frailty. Frailty increases the risk of falls and fractures, but it’s also harmful to metabolic health. Having healthy muscle tissue aids in blood glucose control too. In the study, subjects that made the switch to Mediterranean fare boosted the quality of bacteria in their guts that are linked with muscle strength, reduced frailty, and improve cognitive function.
Therefore, a Mediterranean diet with its high fiber content may exert some of its health benefits through the gut microbiome. Since we tie the gut microbiome to immune health, these changes may reduce inflammation, a contributor to aging. According to research, the nutritionally dense and varied Mediterranean diet increases gut microbiome diversity and that’s favorable for health and weight control.
Telomere Shortening and the Mediterranean Diet
One of the best markers of aging is the length of telomeres, the end caps on the tips of chromosomes that keep chromosomes from fraying. As cells continue to divide, their telomeres become shorter. Once they reach a certain length, the cell dies. Having longer telomeres is a marker of general health and longevity, whereas research finds that shorter telomeres are associated with more tummy fat and greater insulin resistance. When researchers looked at telomere shortening among people who stuck close to a Mediterranean diet, they found a reduced rate of telomere shortening. The slowdown in telomere shortening suggests a more gradual rate of cellular aging. More youthful cells are favorable for health and longevity!
Mediterranean Diet and Reduction in Disease Risk
As we age, we’re more likely to develop a host of medical problems that keep us from enjoying life. Eating a Mediterranean diet may prevent or delay some of these health problems. In fact, an Italian study found that people who ate a Mediterranean diet were less likely to die from any cause. Some of the healthiest cultures in the world eat a diet rich in whole, plant-based foods and fish, so it’s not surprising that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of health problems and early mortality. Studies such as one published in the British Journal of Nutrition show that eating a Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of cognitive decline that’s common with aging. It may be a mood booster too! People who adopt a Mediterranean style of eating are less likely to develop depression. According to a Spanish study, a 30% reduced risk of depression.
The Bottom Line
There are several ways in which adopting a Mediterranean-style diet could slow aging and the incidence of age-related health problems, and it offers a diverse array of nutrient-dense foods. You can’t go wrong by adding more whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables to your diet, and you’ll also benefit by eliminating ultra-processed foods and sugar. Your body thrives best with foods in their unaltered form without unnecessary additives, sweeteners, and excessive salt. There’s no surefire panacea for aging, but eating more whole foods and staying physically active is an excellent start. If you’d like to age slower, inspect what you’re eating! The answer may lie with tweaking your diet.
- Science Daily. “Mediterranean diet for one year promotes gut bacteria linked to ‘healthy aging”
- Ghosh TS, Rampelli S, Jeffery IB, et al Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people reducing frailty and improving health status: the NU-AGE 1-year dietary intervention across five European countries Gut Published Online First: 17 February 2020. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2019-319654.
- Science Daily. “Can a Mediterranean diet pattern slow aging?”
- PLoS One. 2013; 8(4): e62781.Published online 2013 Apr 30. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.006278.
- British Journal of Nutrition. Volume 120, Issue 828 October 2018 , pp. 841-854.
- Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Volume65, Issue 8. August 2017. Pages 1857-1862.
- “Mediterranean Diet May Fight Depression”