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Eat Your Way to Longevity and Good Health

Eat Your Way to Longevity and Good Health

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

More on the Mediterranean Diet

A while ago, I recommended the Mediterranean diet as part of a healthy weight-loss regimen for that post-menopausal muffin top. But it’s so much more than a “diet” and has so many proven and critically important health benefits that I decided to circle back and dig a little deeper into the Mediterranean diet and the lifestyle that surrounds it.

It would be hard to pin down one way of eating that adequately sums up the Mediterranean region. People in southern Spain eat differently from those in Morocco or Greece, yet researchers have identified several commonalities of the region that produces some of the healthiest and longest-lived people on the planet. Case in point: two of the five “Blue Zones”—places with the highest concentration of centenarians in the world—are located in the Mediterranean, including Sardinia, where men live as long as women. (The ratio of male to female centenarians is 1:1.)

Granted, a long and healthy life is the result of many factors beyond diet, not the least of which is the genes you were born with. Nonetheless, the way you eat is critical to your health, and unlike your genes, is something you can control. (Along with several other contributors to longevity. More on that below.)

Despite its broad and diverse geography, several characteristics are common to the Mediterranean diet.

  • An emphasis on fruits and vegetables, mostly local, fresh, and often home-grown. This goes beyond carrot and celery sticks to include colorful and flavorful salads and dishes incorporating eggplant, tomatoes, mint, cucumber, and avocado, for example. 
  • Also lots of legumes, such as dried beans and peas, nuts, and whole grains (although most of the traditional Mediterranean bread and pasta isn’t whole grain, it doesn’t hurt to improve on tradition).
  • Lots of fish, some poultry, and very little red meat. Fish also contains heart-healthy Omega-3 fats.
  • Lots of olive oil and very little additional fat from butter, margarine, or vegetable oil. All by itself, olive oil is chock-a-block with substances that support good health and protect the heart, such as antioxidants, Omega-3s, and oleic acids. Olive oil that is labeled “extra virgin” and “cold-pressed” is minimally processed and retains more of the original plant nutrients. (Read this article from the National Consumers League for a discussion on what these terms mean in the US and what brands are most likely to adhere to the labeling.)
  • Minimal sugar. Most sugars are obtained from fruit sources
  • Dairy in the form of yogurt and various cheeses.
  • A little red wine with a meal.

That’s it. Simple and delicious. Notice that this approach to diet isn’t vegetarian or vegan. It isn’t gluten- or dairy-free. It isn’t a fad or a flash-in-the-pan. These traditional diets have been around for a long time. Numerous studies confirm that, in addition to weight loss, the Mediterranean diet has powerful protective factors from cardiac problems and some types of cancer.

According to literature from the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet is “associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer. For these reasons, most if not all major scientific organizations encourage healthy adults to adapt a style of eating like that of the Mediterranean diet for prevention of major chronic diseases.”

How’s that for an unambiguous statement from a leading medical organization?

While diet alone is an important contributor to health and longevity, it sure isn’t the only one. This is because those long-lived individuals in the Mediterranean and other Blue Zones are embedded within communities and cultures that support both mental and physical good health. These are cultures that tend to engage in activities that naturally involve movement: gardening, walking, housework. They are surrounded by a network of kin and friends that provides a sense of purpose, support, and well-being. They know how to de-stress, maybe with a nap or a drink with friends. And they disproportionately belong to faith communities.

These elements, of which diet is a part, have been around for a long time. These cultures have a deep wisdom to impart to the rest of us born within more modern and less mature cultures. While we won’t be able to replicate life in a Blue Zone, we can look to them for guidance.

Maybe the easiest way to start is with diet. But a lifestyle of commitment, community, faith, and natural movement is a decent goal to shoot for as well.

To help motivate you, here is a Mediterranean-inspired recipe (bonus! appropriate for the season) from the lovely Intercourses cookbook, which explores the playful nature of sex and the aphrodisiac qualities of food.

Roasted Pumpkin and Ginger Soup

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

1 pound peeled pumpkin or butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 Delicious or other sweet apple, peeled, cored, and cut into slices

2 to 2 ½ cups chicken stock

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

¼ cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Devon or clotted cream

Madeira or amontillado sherry

This easy-to-make soup will get you feeling very cozy on a brisk autumn evening. The recipe calls for fresh pumpkin or squash; if you prefer, you may substitute a pound of canned pumpkin or frozen butternut squash, but in that case limit the simmering time to 7 minutes.

Yields 2 or 3 servings

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Set aside.

Place the pumpkin and apples in a large saucepan and add enough stock to cover. Stir in the ginger and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 30 minutes.

Use an immersion blender to puree the soup. Or, working in batches if necessary, transfer the soup to a blender and puree. (If you’re using an especially powerful blender, definitely work in small batches, as the steam released by too much hot soup may cause the blender’s lid to blow off!) Return the pureed soup to the saucepan and add the cream in a thin stream, whisking as you do so. Add the salt and pepper and stir. 

Spoon a dollop of Devon cream into each soup bowl, and drizzle 1 or 2 teaspoons of Madeira on top. Pour the soup into the bowls and garnish each with some toasted walnuts. 


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