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Posted Oct 22 2008 4:24pm

If you have ever been by the self-help section in a book store you will be aware that there are multiple diets touted as potential lifesavers and life extenders. It's a confusing array of information is difficult to sort out and comprehend.

When looking at diet and lifestyle in general as predictors of health and life extension, scientists have to measure an outcome which is reliable. Researchers also have to look at a variety of lifestyle factors other than diet that might confuse outcomes, such as smoking and lack of physical activity. In other words it's a complex area of research.

The Mediterranean Diet has been in the forefront of research in the last 10 years because it appeared that people who lived, particularly in Southern Europe, had greater longevity and less illness than people who live in North America. This was in spite of the fact that that their diet contained more fat and alcohol, and for this reason was originally labelled the "French Paradox". How could the French have a greater longevity than North American's when they ate cheese and drank wine?

We are now just beginning to sort out that paradox. The Mediterranean diet refers to a diet that contains the following components:

Abundant plant foods that include fruits, vegetables, breads and other forms of cereals, as well as beans, nuts, and seeds as major components.
Minimally processed, seasonably fresh and locally grown foods.
Fresh fruits as the typical daily dessert.
Olive oil as the principal source of dietary fat.
Dairy products consumed in low to moderate amounts -- mainly cheese and yogurt.
Less than 4 eggs per week.
Red meat consumed in low frequency and amounts, with high fish intake.
Red wine consumed in low to moderate amounts generally with meals.

It is this kind of diet that led to the landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association 2004 in which Europeans in the later stages of life who were 70 to 90 years of age, from 11 European countries, were followed until their death and divided into categories that looked at their nutritional intake as well as alcohol, physical activity, and smoking. This carefully crafted study showed that the mortality rate (the final endpoint of the study) was decreased by 60% in those who followed the Mediterranean diet, compared to those who remained on a more traditional processed food diet. Sixty percent -- that's right!

Now if I was to tell you that there was a pill that you could take that would reduce your mortality by 60% without side effects, would you take it? Of course you would. But changing lifestyle is a complicated process requiring behavioural changes that some people are often unwilling to take. This is not the only study that has shown significant benefits. This study used healthy people before they started to change their diet. In the Lyon Heart Study other people that suffered initially from heart disease for example, have also benefited from the Mediterranean diet reducing risk of recurrence of heart attack by 80%.

The Mediterranean Diet -- with its emphasis on high plant food products probably works because the levels of anti-stress plant nutrients are very high. These phyto-nutrients are also present in alcohol particularly from red wine. Its natural pharmacology at its best, utilizing what is natural to our bodies in foods that have been around for millennia.

This is simple, and within reach. It’s a great time of year to start exploring this way of eating. Markets are full of fresh, organic, locally grown food that will enhance your health. Try it – you will like it for sure.

© Edward Leyton MD 2008
© Accessing Resources for Empowerment 2008

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