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Stick to a Mediterranean-Style Diet and Live Longer, New Study Claims

Adults throughout Europe extended their lifespan by eating and drinking in ways similar to those in Mediterranean areas

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: April 13, 2005

The Atkins and South Beach diets tout the ability to shed pounds, but new research indicates that sticking to a Mediterranean diet, no matter where you live, may put off shedding the mortal coil--at least for an extra year or so.

The study, published online April 7 in the British Medical Journal, found that elderly people who adhered closely to the tenets of the Mediterranean diet, which encourages moderate consumption of wine, lived longer than others who didn't.

The authors said the research is significant because it shows that, no matter which country people live in, they can benefit from consuming healthy ingredients that are consistent with--though not necessarily identical to--those in a typical Mediterranean regimen.

The Mediterranean diet favors fish as a main course, accompanied by wine and other plant-based foods, such as fruits, nuts, whole-grain breads and brown rice. Poultry fits into the diet regularly, but meat is eaten only a few times a month. Olive oil is consumed in large amounts, and butter is used infrequently, if at all.

Previous research done by the authors, led by Antonia Trichopoulou, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School, found that Greek adults who ate a Mediterranean diet had a significantly lower risk of developing ailments such as heart disease or cancer than those who followed a Western-style diet.

But the researchers wanted to see if people in countries that do not border the Mediterranean would benefit from following similar diets that included ingredients available locally. Someone in a Scandinavian country, say, may not eat olive oil but would instead choose another monounsaturated fat, such as canola oil.

Trichopoulou's team examined dietary data from 74,607 Europeans who took part in the larger EPIC study, conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. That study, which ran from 1992 to 2000, recruited more than 500,000 healthy people more than 60 years old from 23 health centers in 10 countries. Dietary habits were assessed through yearly questionnaires that asked about food consumption over a typical 24-hour period. Other factors, such as smoking, education level and physical activity, were also recorded.

For their study, Trichopoulou's team rated the participants using a modified version of their "Mediterranean Diet Scale" from their previous research. In short, they assigned a numerical value of 1 or 0 to varying aspects of a person's diet. For instance, a person who primarily eats olive oil (or any monounsaturated fat) would get a 1 and a person who mainly eats butter (or other various polyunsaturated or saturated fats) would receive a 0. All the numbers are then added together, for a maximum value of 9. The higher the number, the more "Mediterranean" the diet.

One point was given to people who drank any form of alcohol (not just wine, for this study) in moderation, which the authors defined as one to four drinks per day for men and a half-drink to two-and-a-half drinks for women. Anyone who drank more than that was excluded from the study, and people who didn't drink at all were given a 0.

For every participant that died during the EPIC study, the team recorded the cause of death and where they ranked on the diet scale. (Over the course of the study, 4,047 people died, mostly from Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom.) The researchers then compared the different rankings on the scale to determine which groups of people might be at a higher risk of earlier death.

The authors calculated that someone who scored between 6 and 9 points on the scale was likely to live roughly one year longer than someone who scored lower.

In other terms, a step of two points up the scale translated into an 8 percent reduction in mortality compared to the people at the lower step. For steps of three or four points up the scale, the chance of death from any cause decreased by 11 percent to 14 percent, respectively, so someone who scored a 9 would have a 14 percent lower risk than someone who scored a 5.

"Evidence shows that an increase in the [dietary] score is associated with reduced overall mortality," the authors concluded.

However, the authors noted, their study had a few limitations. For instance, it was not clear whether specific aspects of the diet, such as moderate alcohol consumption, contribute separately to the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

And participants from Spain and Greece whose food consumption habits were "genuinely a Mediterranean diet" performed somewhat better than those in other countries. However, the authors found little evidence that life in any country is healthier than in another simply because of its location.

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