Could a Mediterranean diet keep you young, as well as decreasing the risk of life-threatening diseases?

December 2nd 2014

A new study has suggested that following a Mediterranean diet could help to keep you "genetically" younger, as well as reducing the risk of life-threatening illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

In a study conducted in the USA, which has been published in the British Medical Journal, a group of nurses who followed the Mediterranean diet were found to display fewer signs of ageing in the cells. The researchers, who are based at Boston University, followed a group of almost 5,000 nurses over a period of ten years to compile their findings.

Researchers believe that the combination of ingredients, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and olive oil may prevent DNA from "scrambling" as we age and protect chromosomes from losing the important genetic information.

During the research study, scientists analysed telomeres, tiny structures that help to protect the end of the chromosome. As you get older, the length of the telomeres tends to decrease and their structure weakens. This increases the risk of them ceasing to divide and therefore effectively dying. Short telomeres have been associated with a higher prevalence of a number of life-threatening illnesses, including some forms of cancer and heart disease.During the study, researchers discovered that the nurses following the diet had healthier, longer telomeres, suggesting that the combination of ingredients helps to ward off premature ageing of the cells. There was no stand-out super food, which experts believe underlines the importance of a balanced and well-rounded diet.

Senior researcher in clinical epidemiology at Exeter University, Dr David Llewelyn, said that it can be simple to misinterpret and misunderstand the results of research studies and the relationship between diet and telomere length may not necessarily be causal. However, the study does reinforce the importance of healthy eating and the potential benefits of switching to a diet that is rich in fresh vegetables, fish, lean meat and olive oil and lacks processed, fatty foods. Dr Llewelyn also added that the study was "large" and "well-conducted" and supported the notion that making dietary changes can have a very positive impact on health and wellbeing. A spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation said that the findings of the study are extremely interesting and highlight the importance and the benefits of following a healthy eating plan.

This latest study comes just a few weeks after a group of health experts spoke out in favour of adopting the Mediterranean diet as a means of targeting obesity in the UK and lowering rates of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and some forms of cancer. The doctors, who wrote collectively in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, claimed that fad diets and rapid weight loss plans were not the answer and urged people to stick to long-term healthy eating goals and a balanced meal plan in line with the key aspects of the Mediterranean diet, which includes a lot of fresh salads and vegetables, lean meat, poultry, olive oil and fresh fish, rather than convenience foods, processed meat, salty foods and products that contain a lot of sugar.