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August 21, 2023

A Mediterranean lifestyle involves more than eating healthy – but it lowers the risk of early death, research shows

A diet of mostly vegetables, fruits and whole grains provides many benefits. But physical activity, napping and socialization also are important factors

Healthy Eating Nutrition
Mediterranean Lifestyle Study Brooke Lark/Unsplash

Adopting a Mediterranean lifestyle — adhering to the nutrient-rich Mediterranean diet, getting plenty of rest and exercise, limiting added salts and sugars and consuming less processed foods — lowers the risk of early death, and dying of cancer, a new study finds.

The Mediterranean diet has long been touted for its numerous health benefits and ease of use. But for many proponents, it's more than a diet based mostly on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It's also a lifestyle that emphasizes physical activity, sleeping well and socializing at mealtimes. 

Adhering to this Mediterranean lifestyle, particularly in middle age, can reduce one's risk of early death, and particularly from cancer, according to new research conducted by Harvard University.

The study asked 110,799 people, ages 40 to 75, in the United Kingdom about how often they consumed foods in the Mediterranean diet, whether they limited added sugars and salts, the types of beverages they drank, and how often they napped, exercised and socialized with loved ones.

Over a nine-year period, a Mediterranean lifestyle reduced the risk of death by 29% and death from cancer by 28%, the study found. Adopting any of the habits associated with a Mediterranean lifestyle reduced these risks. But napping, exercise and spending time with loved ones were most strongly associated with the lowered risks, and also were linked to a reduced risk of dying from heart disease. 

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. It also recommends eating fish or seafood a few times each week, and keeping red meat to a minimum. It does not require calorie-counting. 

A Mediterranean lifestyle includes limiting the consumption of alcohol, processed foods and those with added sugars and salts. It also emphasizes socializing with friends, especially at meals, playings sports, limiting sedentary activities and taking naps. 

The Mediterranean diet is frequently recommended by nutritionists and dietitians because of the wealth of research into its health benefits. Despite this, few studies have examined its impacts on people living outside of the Mediterranean region, according to Harvard researchers. 

"This study suggests that it's possible for non-Mediterranean populations to adopt the Mediterranean diet using locally available products and to adopt the overall Mediterranean lifestyle within their own cultural contexts," said researcher Mercedes Sotos Prieto, an environmental health professor. "We're seeing the transferability of the lifestyle and its positive effects on health."

The Mediterranean lifestyle also has been linked to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and a lower risk of type 2 diabetespreeclampsia, metabolic syndrome and brain function decline, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It has been found to improve heart health and gut health.

"I tell my patients that even though it's called the Mediterranean diet, it should really be called the 'Mediterranean way of life,'" Dr. Hooman Yaghoobzadeh, a cardiologist at New York Presbyterian Medical Center, told Health Matters. "Diets are usually something that you do that is short-lived, or very specific, and you can't stay on them for long. The Mediterranean diet isn't a 30-day fast or a 10-day no-carb diet, and you don't need to bring a salad in a brown bag if you go out to a restaurant. It's a healthy way of living that you can stick to for the rest of your life." 

Thinking of switching to the Mediterranean diet? EatingWell has a full shopping list and tips for restocking the pantry and refrigerator with nutrient-dense foods. There are plenty of meal options to choose from, including on-the-go options for snacks.

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