The Mediterranean Diet and Aging: or, Oh my gosh, guys, this is super cool!

(Photo: Vegetables by Mark Hooper/Flickr Creative Commons)

(Photo: Vegetables by Mark Hooper/Flickr Creative Commons)

Eating healthy literally makes you age slower, according to this new study. And I am so pumped to tell you about it. But first, I have to take you back…to high school biology. It’s okay, I promise this will be painless.

Basic Biology

Remember the cell cycle and cell division? In high school we spent a lot of time learning about the ins and outs of chromosomes lining up, pulling apart, and dividing up into two daughter cells and a lot less time on the preparation for these steps. But as in cooking, the prep work is pretty important.

Before a cell can even divide, it has to get the go-ahead from neighboring cells (and essentially get through a checklist of requirements–are there enough resources? Check. Is the DNA in good shape? Check.). Then it has to replicate its DNA properly before the final approval to split into two cells. This DNA replication is very interesting, and I have several lectures worth of notes on the topic, but the important take away (for this article) is that every time a cell replicates that all-important double-helix, the strand of DNA gets  little bit shorter form both ends.

At the ends of each of our chromosomes, there are long chains of repeating units called telomeres. We can lose bits of telomeres because they are non-coding DNA, literally a buffer meant to protect our genome from incomplete replication. You can think of telomeres as the aglets at the end of our long shoelaces of DNA. Every time a cell divides, these aglets wear away just a little bit, until there is none left and the shoelace itself starts to fray. In terms of our DNA, when there is no more telomere left to lose, we start messing with coding DNA and then the cell isn’t producing proper proteins. Proteins are pretty all-important, and without the right ones that cell is down for the count.

This is where the use of telomeres as tools to measure aging comes in: due to the shortening of telomeres with cell division (and thus, with age), we can’t live forever. But longer telomeres lead to a longer possible lifespan. So, yeah, telomeres are super important. But what do they have to do with the Mediterranean diet?

(Photo: Vegetables by Mark Hooper/Flickr Creative Commons)

(Photo: Vegetables by Mark Hooper/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Study

A group of researchers studied adherence to the Mediterranean diet and telomere length. Knowing that telomere shortening can be modified by exposure to oxidization and that the Mediterranean diet is particularly protective against oxidization, the researchers designed a study to see if there is a positive relationship between the two. The one caveat: this is not a randomized experiment, so we can’t draw a cause and effect relationship between telomere length and eating like a Greek.

However, according the the results, there is definitely a correlation between the two. And a statistically significant one, too! While the title of this article alone was enough to get me excited, the fact that individual components of the diet didn’t have a statistically significant effect on telomere length really piqued my interest.

The Mediterranean diet had nine measured attributes in this study:  getting lots of (1) vegetables (excluding potatoes), (2) fruits, (3) nuts, (4) whole grains, (5) legumes,  and (6) fish; (7) a high monounsaturated:saturated fatty acid ratio; (8) low consumption of red and processed meats; and (9) moderate alcohol intake. So, basically, eating lots of fruits and vegetables wasn’t enough to really effect telomere length. The whole diet together (having six or more of these attributes) has a synergistic effect on your health.

In a world of Recommended Daily Values and focusing on individual food items, this look at the importance of diet as a whole is refreshing. We spend so much time looking at individual compounds–vitamin C, linoleic acid, tryptophan–that we miss the forest for the trees (or the meal for the micronutrients!). It’s time to get back to basics: enjoying real food, with real people, in a traditional context.

Isn’t this awesome? Interested in the effects of other traditional diets? Tell us in the comments!

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