What should we eat to cultivate longterm health and well-being? Well, one research-supported answer is: not much. Severe calorie restriction has been shown to increase longevity and vitality since it was first tried in the 16th century. Some researchers have hypothesized that caloric restriction might even slow down the biological process of aging.
But, I am too much of an epicurean to sign up for such a program. So, I have studied the research closely to try to figure out what foods really help with physical and cognitive health. This is much more difficult to discern than it might seem by all of the headlines that tout food-health claims. This is mostly because it is very hard to conduct controlled studies of food intake. Most food studies are correlational, which means that there is a relationship between a given food and a health indicator, but we can’t really conclude that the food item caused the improvement. For example, red wine has been extolled as health-promoting, but a recent study examining 3.5 million grocery receipts and found that people who bought wine also purchased generally healthier foods than those who purchased beer. While it could still be true that chemical components of red wine, such as resveratrol, improve cardiovascular functioning, it could also be that wine drinkers tend to buy and presumably consume more veggies, fruit, and low-fat meats, while beer drinker pick up more chips and soft drinks.
The Mediterranean diet seems to be emerging from the confusion of the nutrition findings. Numerous long-term, randomized clinical trials have been conducted comparing the Mediterranean diet to the low-fat diet, and the results find significant benefits for cardiovascular health and maintaining cognitive functioning. The Mediterranean diet includes eating lots of veggies, fruit and some seafood, and limiting meat and dairy consumption. Also, these studies found particular benefits of the other two mainstays of the Mediterranean diet: nuts (30 grams/day) and extra virgin olive oil (1 liter/week – wow that seems like a lot, but YUM!).
The other exciting research finding to emerge is that the American obesity trend is beginning to remit. Closer examination has shown that much of this progress is due to the simple change of decreased full-calorie soda consumption. This just goes to show that making one small change can make a big difference. So, if nothing else, join the many other Americans who are opting to forego sugared-up soda pop. Or even just switch out one bottle of soda for a bottle of olive oil to cook with each week.
For those of you who are interested in something more challenging, consider increasing your intake of other Mediterranean foods, especially nuts and vegetables. You might also consider periodic fasting. Studies are finding that fasting seems to help our cells to reset and function more effectively. This cellular cleansing may be part of why severe caloric restriction might impact aging, but at least with fasting you can follow it with an olive oil-soaked pasta dish, a glass of red wine and dark chocolate for desert!