Mediterranean Eating Habits That Support Healthy Aging

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet

For decades, the Mediterranean region has captured researchers’ attention because a significant proportion of the local population lives healthier into old age. While daily movement and a strong sense of community certainly help support longevity, the Mediterranean diet itself is also a key contributor to healthy aging.

In fact, by practicing these five Mediterranean eating habits, you too can help tilt the odds in favor of a long and healthy life, regardless of the place you call home.

1. Base your diet around minimally-processed foods.

The traditional Mediterranean diet developed before the age of fast food and microwave meals. Instead, this historic and treasured eating pattern features scratch cooked meals made from minimally-processed ingredients close to the earth. The more we learn about nutrition science, the more we see how this approach to eating may be good for our health as well.

Examples of minimally-processed ingredients include whole grains (brown rice, oats, farro, quinoa), fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans. Try starting your day with a warm bowl of oatmeal made from plain oats and sweetened with fresh fruits, instead of sugary prepackaged pastries or snack bars. For your afternoon snack, try a handful of unsalted almonds or cashews in place of chips.

In a 2020 study, 886 participants aged 57 to 91 years old were analyzed to see the association between highly-processed food consumption and telomere length. Longer telomeres are a marker of healthy aging, since telomeres help protect our DNA. Results of the study showed that those who ate more highly-processed foods had almost twice the odds of having short telomeres in comparison to those who ate fewer highly- processed foods.

2. Choose whole grains.

Most of a grain’s nutrients — and flavor — are concentrated in the bran and the germ of the grain, which are routinely removed when a grain is refined, as in white flour.

One easy swap for health is to choose whole grains. In a traditional Mediterranean diet, whole-grain foods like farro, bulgur, barley and whole wheat pita are an important source of nourishment. In fact, before the advent of steel roller milling in the late 19th century, most grains were eaten in their whole grain form out of necessity.

Try swapping your white bread for whole wheat bread, your mashed potatoes for whole grain pasta or your side of white rice for a side of brown rice. When you’re shopping, look for products that have the yellow Whole Grain Stamp, indicating whole grain content, or search for phrases like 100% whole wheat or whole grain on packages. Watch out for words like “wheat,” “stone-ground,” or “multigrain.” These may indicate that the product contains whole grains, but they’re not a guarantee.

In a 2019 study, researchers evaluated whole grain intake and measured “successful aging” (using social, lifestyle and medical indicators) in a group of 3,349 adults ages 50 or more. Those eating the most whole grains (about seven servings per day) were significantly more likely to score higher on the “successful aging index” than those eating the least whole grains (about 1.5 servings per day).

Those eating the most whole grains were also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

Similarly, a 2018 meta-analysis encompassing more than a million people found that each 1 ounce serving of whole grains daily is linked with a 9% lower risk of total mortality.

3. Use olive oil rather than butter or lard.

When you close your eyes and picture the Mediterranean diet, what’s the first ingredient that comes to mind?

For many of us, the answer is olive oil, a prized staple in every Mediterranean kitchen. With olive oil’s robust lineup of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats — aka “good fats” — and polyphenols (healthy plant compounds with antioxidant properties), it’s no surprise to learn that this nutritious oil may have healthy aging benefits as well.

Ready to start incorporating more olive oil into your diet? Sauté your vegetables in olive oil, scramble your eggs in olive oil and replace your store-bought salad dressings with a homemade vinaigrette of two parts olive oil to one part lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. Delicious!

In a 2020 study following more than 90,000 people for 24 years, those eating more than ½ tablespoon of olive oil per day had a 14% to 17% lower risk of heart disease compared with people who didn’t eat olive oil. The scientists also found that replacing 5 grams per day (roughly 1 teaspoon) of butter, margarine, mayonnaise or dairy fat with the equivalent amount of olive oil was also linked with a 5% to 7% lower risk of heart disease.

4. Eat nuts and seeds regularly.

Olive oil isn’t the only source of healthy fats in the Mediterranean diet. Nuts and seeds, including almonds, pistachios, walnuts and more, are also a prominent component of Mediterranean cuisine.

Pack a small handful in your bag so you have a healthy snack when mid-afternoon hunger strikes. Add a sprinkle of chopped walnuts to Greek yogurt for your breakfast, or to your salad at lunch for a satisfying crunch. You can coat roasted vegetables or fish in crushed nuts instead of breadcrumbs, as in this crispy walnut cod recipe.

In a 2019 study of over 4,000 adults, those with the highest intake of nuts had a significantly higher cognitive function than those who ate a moderate amount of nuts, or no nuts at all. This association remained significant even after adjusting for overall lifestyle, socioeconomic status and overall health status.

Similarly, in a 2018 study of 81,337 adults, those getting more protein from nuts and seeds were significantly less likely to die from heart disease than those not getting as much protein from nuts and seeds. On the other hand, those getting more protein from animal sources had a higher risk of dying from heart disease.

5. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables daily.

From fragrant tomatoes to lush eggplant to sweet citrus and more, the Mediterranean diet highlights delicious fruits and vegetables all year long. A penchant for produce can pay dividends down the road, as research shows time and time again that fruits and vegetables are important components of healthy aging.

Want to eat more fruits and vegetables? Throw a handful of spinach into your smoothie in the morning. Make cozy, decadent-tasting soups from pureed butternut squash or carrots. Choose a piece of fruit for dessert, perhaps paired with a dollop of creamy Greek yogurt or a handful of chopped, fresh mint leaves. Don’t forget, as well, that frozen vegetables are your friend. Keep your freezer stocked so you always have vegetables ready to go.

In a 2018 study of 27,842 people, those eating more vegetables, fruits and fruit juice were significantly less likely to have poor late-life memory problems, as measured by subjective cognitive function.

Another study found that those most closing following a Mediterranean diet had significantly less A? accumulation over time, with fruit standing out as a particularly beneficial food. (A? are small pieces of protein that can accumulate in the brain, potentially creating plaques and causing brain cells to be destroyed.)

When looking at specific fruits and vegetables, leafy greens like kale and chard may be particularly beneficial. A study of nearly 1,000 older adults in Chicago found that people who ate just one to two servings of leafy greens per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who ate none.

With these five eating habits in your rotation, you’ll be eating (and living) like a Mediterranean in no time. Let the Mediterranean diet pyramid guide you towards healthy, minimally-processed meals. Sharing delicious Mediterranean meals with friends and family can not only put more years in your life, but also most importantly, more life in your years.

5 Mediterranean diet eating habits that support healthy aging:

1. Base your diet around minimally-processed foods.

2. Choose whole grains.

3. Use olive oil rather than butter or lard.

4. Eat nuts and seeds regularly.

5. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables daily.

More from U.S. News

16 Tips From Real People to Succeed on the Mediterranean Diet

A Day’s Worth of Meals on the Mediterranean Diet

Healthy Cookbooks for Your Holiday Shopping List

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