Two new studies add to a growing body of research that suggests a plant-forward Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest ways to eat.
The first, published in the journal Nutrients, evaluated the role of the diet in tackling non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which, according to the American Liver Foundation, affects around 100 million people in the US.
NAFLD is the build-up of extra fat in liver cells. While it can impact anyone, “it tends to develop in people who are overweight or obese or have diabetes, high cholesterol, or high triglycerides,” notes the foundation. It adds that rapid weight loss and “poor eating habits” can also lead to the disease.
Treatment options are currently limited for NAFLD, but the new study suggests that following a Mediterranean diet—high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes—may reduce the risk of developing the condition and help control it after it has developed. The researchers also noted that coffee intake may help, too.
“A high-quality diet, frequent exercise, and limiting sugar consumption are important tactics, and enough fiber and coffee consumption can help guard against unwanted gut bacteria associated with NAFLD onset,” noted News Medical Life Sciences in a report on the new study.
The second study, published in the Jama Network Open, focused on the impact of the Mediterranean diet on children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development at age two. The findings suggested that the children of mothers who followed a Mediterranean diet while pregnant had improved development. Stress-reduction classes during pregnancy also seemed to help support the social and emotional well-being of toddlers, noted the study.
“At year two, the children’s brains are harvesting some of the benefits that they received in their adequate nutrition during their intrauterine life,” Miguel Martínez-González, MD, PhD, MPH, a professor of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.
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Is this the Blue Zone effect? A growing body of evidence favors plant-forward Mediterranean diets
Mediterranean diets are high in plant-based, whole foods, like legumes, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. And over the last few years, a growing body of research has linked them with a lower risk of disease.
For example, one recent study by La Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed the habits of 110,799 people and found that those following a Meditteranean lifestyle had a 29 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 28 percent lower risk of cancer mortality.
Another 2023 study, also published in the journal Nutrients, suggested that a Meditteranean diet was not only healthy but also more cost-effective for consumers when compared with Australian Western diets.
The Mediterranean diet is also the core diet of those who live in the Blue Zones, which are five areas of the world where people live particularly long lives. These areas are the subject of a new Netflix documentary, called Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, which follows explorer Dan Buettner as he travels to Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
In these communities, people adhere to the Power 9, which includes things like natural, regular movement, moderate alcohol intake, a lack of chronic stress, and a predominantly plant-based diet.
This way of living is in stark contrast to the Standard American Diet (SAD). According to the plant-based advocacy platform Forks Over Knives, SAD features many refined, processed, and animal-based foods. Only 12 percent of calories on this diet come from plant-based foods, it reports, and half of those come from French fries.
“That means only 6 percent of America’s calories are coming from health-promoting fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds,” it notes. “There’s a good reason we abbreviate the standard American diet to S.A.D. The standard American diet leads to standard American diseases that lead to standard American deaths.”
But if you want to make a change, you don’t have to live in the Blue Zones or the Meditteranean to follow their example, and you don’t have to have lived a perfect life so far, either.
“Starting [a Blue Zone lifestyle] at any age will make you live longer,” believes Buettner. “At age 60, you could potentially add six extra years. And at age 20, if you’re a male, you could potentially add 13 extra years if you live in a Blue Zone lifestyle as opposed to a standard American lifestyle.”
Buettner is not the only one who thinks so. In 2023, for the sixth year in a row, the Meditteranean Diet was awarded the title of Best Overall Diet in a rating list from the US News & World Report.
“Because the Mediterranean diet focuses on nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats, it leaves little room for the saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium that inundate the standard American diet,” noted the publication. “As a result, people who eat a Mediterranean-style diet have longer life spans, report a higher quality of life, and are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.”