From tapeworms to cabbage soup, mind-boggling food crazes litter the world of nutrition like so many discarded cigarette butts.
But, there are gems hidden within the dietary refuse; particular eating plans that provide a key ingredient to living a longer, healthier life.
One such jewel is the "Mediterranean diet," a collection of nutritional and behavioral best-practices typically adhered to by people living in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This particular eating regimen also offers a series of benefits specific to the aging population.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
Built on a foundation of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, the Mediterranean diet has slowly gained prominence as an effective way to increase longevity and stave off chronic illness and cognitive decline.
Recently, the diet nabbed the third place spot (out of 29) on U.S. News and World Report's, "Best Overall Diets," list—receiving four out of five stars from nutritional experts.
"This diet is an example of great nutrition mostly because it is rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. Which means it's rich in a variety of powerful vitamins and minerals," says Gwen Weiss-Numeroff, nutritionist and author of, "Extraordinary Centenarians in America: Their Secrets to Living a Long Vibrant Life."
Here's what science has to say about the positive effects of the eating habits of Mediterranean natives:
- Keeps elders agile: A 2012 study conducted on elderly residents of Tuscany, Italy, found that keeping to a Mediterranean-style diet decreased a senior's odds of developing hallmark signs of frailty (slow walking speed, muscle weakness, generalized exhaustion) by about 70 percent, when compared to those who subscribed to a different nutritional program. Avoiding signs of frailty can help prevent falls, fractures and broken bones in the elderly.
- Fights chronic ailments: Study after study shows how Mediterranean diet foods can help reduce a person's risk for developing chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, dental disease, macular degeneration and Alzheimer's. They may also play a role in helping people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) manage their condition.
- Protects the brain: Adhering to healthy lifestyle practices may reduce a person's risk of Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive disorders. "We know that dietary habits can and do have profound effects on our brains both directly, as well as indirectly," says Christopher Ochner, Ph.D., a leading nutrition and brain health researcher and co-author of the book, "The Alzheimer's Diet: A Step-by-Step Nutritional Approach for Memory Loss Prevention and Treatment." Ochner's co-author and colleague, Richard Isaacson, M.D., an Alzheimer's disease specialist says that a good diet is one that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in dairy, saturated fat and refined sugar (a.k.a. the Mediterranean diet). He adds, "The positive effects on memory function associated with a brain-healthy diet may be as effective (or even more effective over time) than those achieved with current FDA-approved medications."
Good nutrition alone isn't enough. To reap the maximum health advantages, Weiss-Numeroff stresses the importance of the non-food elements of the Mediterranean diet.
"The Mediterranean people also remain active well into their platinum years, eat moderate portions and savor their food. Americans tend to be more sedentary, eat way too quickly and in excess—which contributes to digestive disorders and obesity," she says.
Communal meals eaten in the company of family and friends are also an important component of dietary lifestyle of these individuals. Sharing a meal with others strengthens social bonds and is an effective way to help prevent loneliness in the elderly.
Guidelines for going Mediterranean
One of the oft-cited advantages of the Mediterranean diet is that it's relatively easy to follow.
You don't have to forgo any major food groups—even sweets. And, because you're mainly noshing on fiber-rich foods, there's no starvation necessary.
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when attempting to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet:
- Go fishing for Omega-3s: A central tenant of the Mediterranean Diet is to avoid all but the leanest meats (sirloin, beef round), and even those should be consumed infrequently. Fish is the preferred supplier of animal protein. According to Weiss-Numeroff, the rule of thumb is to eat fish twice a week. She suggests tucking into tuna or salmon—both of which are good sources of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Get friendly with (good) fats: The word, ‘fat' has become taboo in modern society, but there is a crucial difference between "good" fats and "bad" fats. According to Weiss-Numeroff, monounsaturated fats (found in avocados, almond, olives, salmon and tuna) are essential for a heart healthy diet because they play a role in regulating blood pressure and promoting properly functioning blood vessels.
- Know your reds: The Mediterranean Diet allows for moderate consumption of red wine which, research indicates may increase longevity, improve immune and digestive system functioning and help maintain healthy levels of good cholesterol (HDL).
- Fill up on fiber: Fiber-rich foods such as, fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains should be a staple in everyone's diet—regardless of age. But, fiber plays a particularly essential role in regulating the digestive tracts of the elderly.
- Spice things up: The right spices can make a dish delicious without excess salt and fat. Basil, Cardamom, Cumin, Garlic, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Saffron and Sage are all used in traditional Mediterranean dishes.
List of Mediterranean diet foods:
- Baba Ghanoush
- Feta cheese
- Pita bread
- Red wine
- Whole grains