The Mediterranean diet has long been known to provide a myriad of health benefits, reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer among others; but until now, no study has shown that it also protects telomeres, one of the biomarkers of aging.
As the name gives it away, the Mediterranean diet follows the nutritional patterns of inhabitants from the Mediterranean area (most notably Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco). Along with regular physical exercise, the diet emphasizes abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts.
In a study published Tuesday online in The BMJ, researchers at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) found that this mix of foods has significant effects, protecting the telomeres. Telomeres are stretches of DNA at the end of our chromosomes which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer. As cells divide more and more (as we age), telomeres tend to get shorter and shorter – and when they become too short, cells can’t divide anymore. Shorter telomeres have also been associated with decreased life expectancy and increased risk of aging-related disease, while longer telomeres have been linked to longevity. It has also been shown that stress leads to telomere shortening. This study suggests that following a Mediterranean diet, preserving your genetic youth.
“To our knowledge this is the largest population-based study specifically addressing the association between Mediterranean diet adherence and telomere length in healthy, middle-aged women,” explained Immaculata De Vivo, an associate professor in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at BWH and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the senior author of this study. “Our results further support the benefits of adherence to this diet to promote health and longevity.”
Although it’s not exactly clear what makes this diet so good, an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables are known to provide many health benefits; the relatively low consumption of red meat and animal fats is also encouraged; foods rich in vitamins appear to provide a buffer against stress and damage of tissues and cells, while vast amounts of meat does the opposite.
Researchers sampled 4,676 disease-free women from the Nurses’ Health Study who had completed the food-frequency questionnaire and whose telomere lengths had been measured. They found that those following the Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres; even small changes (eg consuming more vegetables and fruits) had significant effects on telomere length.
“Our findings showed that healthy eating, overall, was associated with longer telomeres. However, the strongest association was observed among women who adhered to the Mediterranean diet,” explained Marta Crous Bou, a postdoctoral fellow in the Channing Division of Network Medicine and the first author of the study.
The next step is now finding exactly which components of the diet are causing this telomere preservation, and how they are doing it.
Via Harvard University.