A Delicious Way to Improve Your Health

Here's more good news about the Mediterranean diet.

Senior couple preparing a nutritious meal

For years, nutritionists have confirmed the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, named after the eating habits of people who live in areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Not every nutritionist defines the Mediterranean diet in precisely the same way, and some experts put more emphasis on certain components of the diet than on others. But the basic recommendations are to eat:

  • Healthy monounsaturated fats, especially olive oil, in place of saturated fats and trans fats.
  • Plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Fish instead of red meat.
  • Whole grains rather than processed flour in breads, cereals and pasta.
  • Herbs and spices in place of salt.
  • A minimum of dairy products and sweets.
  • Red wine in moderation, unless advised otherwise.

Through the years, studies have powerfully demonstrated the health benefits of this diet. It can help us maintain a healthy weight and reduce unhealthful belly fat. It can protect against heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Several studies from Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital even showed that the Mediterranean diet protects us right down to the genetic level, protecting our telomeres—the "end caps" of genes that erode as we grow older, increasing the risk of disease and death.

And the good news continues to come in. Here are five new studies from the last year:

Heart health. In February 2017, the American Heart Association reported that a Mediterranean diet, particularly one rich in olive oil, improves the ability of HDL ("good") cholesterol to protect the heart by maintaining healthy blood flow and removing LDL ("bad") cholesterol from the arteries. Said study author Dr. Montserrat Fitó of the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Barcelona, "Following a Mediterranean diet rich in virgin olive oil could protect our cardiovascular health in several ways, including making our good cholesterol work in a more complete way."

Pain control. Also in February 2017, Ohio State University experts found that for people who are overweight, eating a Mediterranean diet could reduce pain and inflammation. More seniors today are struggling to maintain a healthy weight, so this could be of significant help. Said Prof. Charles Emery, "For people with obesity, it's kind of like a cloud hanging over them because they experience high levels of pain and inflammation. We found that a healthy diet explained the link between weight and pain and specifically that seafood and plant proteins such as peas and nuts and beans were key."

Brain health. In January 2017, the American Academy of Neurology released a study showing that seniors who followed a Mediterranean diet maintained more of their brain volume through the years. According to study author Michelle Luciano, Ph.D., of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, "As we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells, which can affect learning and memory. This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health."

Eye health. At their annual meeting in October 2016, the American Academy of Ophthalmology noted that people who follow the Mediterranean diet lower their risk of age-related macular degeneration, which is one of the top causes of vision loss as we grow older. This study found fruit, in particular, to be protective.

Longevity. In August 2016, the European Society of Cardiology presented a study showing that heart patients who follow the diet reduce their risk of death. Prof. Giovanni de Gaetano of the I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed Institute in Pozzilli, Italy, said that during the period of the study, "among those with a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet, death from any cause was reduced by 37 percent in comparison to those who poorly adhered to this dietary regime."

Ready to give the Mediterranean diet a try? Not everyone will be able to adhere rigorously to the diet, but experts say we can make simple substitutions to bring our diet more in line with the recommendations:

Fruits, veggies, fish, olive oil and other components of Mediterranean diet

  • Whether dining out or at home, make sure your meals feature lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, beans and whole grains.
  • Instead of choosing breads, pasta and cereals made with processed flour, use the whole-grain versions. You most likely will quickly come to prefer the flavor.
  • Substitute olive oil for butter and less-healthy oils when making salad dressings, sautéing vegetables, and in other recipes that call for oil. You also can purchase olive oil cooking spray.
  • Instead of serving buttered white bread at meals, dip a sliced whole wheat baguette into olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  • Remove the salt shaker from the table; season food with herbs and spices instead.
  • Roast tomatoes with olive oil and serve on pasta—you will hardly miss the meat.
  • Rethink nuts! We were raised to think they should be forbidden because they have a lot of fat—but they contain the good kinds of fats that can actually help us lose weight. Keep them around for a quick snack.
  • Think color. Red peppers, green cucumbers, orange carrots, blueberries and raspberries … colorful produce varieties contain antioxidants and other healthy substances.
  • Make a fruit smoothie instead of a milkshake.
  • Plant a garden if you can. Or now that summer is coming, take a trip to your local farmers' market. (If your family uses home care to support an older relative, this could be a great outing for your loved one and the caregiver.)
  • Check out Mediterranean diet recipes from the Mayo Clinic, Allrecipes, and the New York Times.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist before making dietary changes, especially if you are living with diabetes, heart disease or other health conditions.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.