For all of us nearing middle age, or slogging through it, yes, there is a benefit in eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit.
A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine finds that women who followed this pattern of eating in their 50s were about 40 percent more likely to reach the later decades without developing chronic diseases and memory or physical problems, compared to women who didn't eat as well.
Researchers tracked the dietary habits and lifestyles of more than 10,000 women, beginning in late middle age. Every two years, the women filled out detailed surveys describing their diets.
Over the next 15 years, researchers kept tabs on who among the women developed a whole host of chronic diseases including Parkinson's, cancer, and lung and pulmonary disease. The women were also given a battery of memory tests, and researchers also evaluated physical function, meaning the women's abilities to move around and stay active.
"This really suggests that a healthy diet can help improve multiple aspects of your health and your ability to function when you're older," says researcher Fran Grodstein of the Harvard School of Public Health.
Stampfer says this study adds to a growing body of evidence that all points to measurable benefits of eating a diet that is rich in plant-based food and low in saturated fats, meat and refined starch. He says he's changed his own eating habits based on the weight of the evidence.
"I'm eating more nuts, berries and fruit," he says. As well as fewer potatoes, and less meat. "And I'm happier."
Yes, the evidence suggests that our diets really can help shape mood and overall well-being.
Making The Shift
Adopting a Mediterranean-style diet is not as difficult as you you might think. It's not a complete diet overhaul.
"Mediterranean cooking is simply a tweaking of basic cooking," says Chef Michael Friedman, part-owner of the Red Hen, a hip, newish restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Switching from butter to olive oil is the first step that any cook can make, Friedman says. After that, he says, think about scaling up vegetables, even ones you normally overlook.
The day I visited, Friedman whipped up a super creamy mushroom risotto topped with a parsnip puree. It sounds fancy, but Friedman says it's really pretty simple: You just roast the parsnips with thyme, garlic and a little salt, then put them in a blender.
"If you look at it, it has the texture of creaminess, of butter," he says. "But it's just a puree."
The taste is surprising.
Friedman agreed. There was no butter, no cream, no cheese, but the taste was divine. "I kind of tricked myself a little bit," he says.
Oh, and a bit of good news for those who like a nice glass of vino to accompany the meal. The healthy eaters in the study consumed moderate amounts of alcohol.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next we have news on the value of healthy meals. A new study examines what's called the Mediterranean-style diet. For generations, people have noted that Mediterranean-style eating was good for your heart. Around the time of World War II, in fact, researchers documented lower rates of heart disease in Southern Europe than elsewhere. Now this study finds upsides well beyond the heart.
NPR's Allison Aubrey explains.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Remember the 1970s? Steak and potatoes were big. And as this old steakhouse ad reminds us, they were pretty cheap, too.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For the next two weeks, any day, you can have our big T-bone steak dinner at this great low price
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For the next two weeks, any day, you can have our big T-bone steak dinner at this great low price.
AUBREY: Three bucks for a big meal.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's complete with baked potato and Texas toast.
AUBREY: Now, it was during the era that this ad was made, back in the late 1970s when researchers enrolled thousands of women in a huge study. The idea was to track the women's eating habits and lifestyles over decades and keep tabs on their health as they aged. At the time the study began, the women were middle-aged. Many were in their 50s and many were eating a typical American diet, big on steak and potatoes.
But researcher Fran Grodstein of Harvard School of Public Health said some women had started eating in a way that was more typical of the Mediterranean diet. They tended to eat more fish, whole grains, vegetables and fruit.
FRAN GRODSTEIN: So our goal here really was to compare women who had the healthiest diets to the ones who had the worst diets in our group.
AUBREY: Would there be differences in how healthy the women were in their 70s and beyond? Grodstein explains they kept track of who among the women developed chronic diseases such as Parkinson's, cancer, kidney or lung disease.
GRODSTEIN: And we also considered memory, mental health and we also considered physical function.
AUBREY: Meaning how well the women could move around. Now, years after the study began the results are in. They were just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and this is what they showed. The women who followed a more Mediterranean-style diet were about 40 percent less likely to develop these chronic diseases or memory problems compared to the women who ate a more standard American diet.
MEIR STAMPFER: I was surprised by the magnitude.
AUBREY: That's co-author, Meir Stampfer of the Harvard School of Public Health. He says he wasn't expecting such a large effect because the differences in the diets between the standard eaters and the Mediterranean eaters were not that dramatic. It's not as if the women following a more Mediterranean diet were living off nothing but fish and vegetables.
They just made a series of smaller changes. Stampfer says he's so convinced of the benefits that he's changed his own diet in a similar way.
STAMPFER: I'm eating more nuts and berries and fruit.
AUBREY: And fewer potatoes, less meat.
STAMPFER: And I'm happier.
AUBREY: Chef Michael Friedman who runs a restaurant in D.C. called The Red Hen says you don't have to do a lot to make the shift.
MICHAEL FRIEDMAN: Mediterranean cooking is simply a tweaking of basic cooking ideas.
AUBREY: When I caught up with him, he was sauteing vegetables.
FRIEDMAN: I'm going to take the olive oil and just heat it up in the pan.
AUBREY: Michael says swapping butter for olive oil is an easy step that any cook can make. Next, he says, scale up on vegetables. Tonight, he's making a risotto with a parsnip puree.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, we're going to do it for you right now.
AUBREY: It sounds fancy, but basically it's just roasted parsnips in the blender with some herbs and scallions.
FRIEDMAN: If you look at it, it has this texture of creaminess of butter, but again, it's just a vegetable puree.
AUBREY: And the taste.
AUBREY: It's incredibly creamy.
AUBREY: It's all from the parsnips.
AUBREY: All from the vegetable.
FRIEDMAN: That's it.
AUBREY: Kind of surprising.
FRIEDMAN: I know. I kind of trick myself a little bit.
AUBREY: Michael says it's not as if there are dishes or days for splurging, but the benefits really come from making small changes like the healthy eaters in the study. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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