woman eating“Diet” can be a real stumbling block of a word for some people. It easily conjures ideas of extremes: no carbs, slashed calories, overreliance on allegedly fat-burning “superfoods,” and the like. People often talk about it as a temporary thing – something you do to quickly lose weight before returning to old, comfortable eating habits.

Strictly speaking, however, “diet” just means regular food – the stuff you routinely eat. It comes from the Greek word diaita, which originally meant “way of life.” And truly, the ideal diet is the one that you can follow for a lifetime, that doesn’t rely on fads or gimmicks but provides the nutrients you need to create and sustain good health.

Perhaps the best generic model for this type of eating – “generic” in the sense of “general” – is the Mediterranean diet, which is based on whole, minimally processed foods and includes lots of vegetables and fruit, nuts and healthy fats. It’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich.

And according to recent research, it may extend your life.

Meet Your Telomeres

Specifically, the study looked at the effects of diet on the length of a person’s telomeres. “And what, pray, tell, are telomeres?” you may ask?

telomeres diagramThink of them as aglets – those little plastic sheaths on the ends of shoelaces – for your chromosomes. Made of DNA, they help protect the chromosomes from damage, but they grow shorter over time. When they get too short, the cell they are supporting will die. Because of this, as well as their role in age-related degeneration, they’ve become popular as a way to measure aging and longevity.

For the current study, the researchers analyzed data from over 4500 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study. They compared diet with telomere length and found that those who more closely and regularly kept to the Mediterranean diet tended to have longer telomeres.

These results further support the benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet for promoting health and longevity. [emphasis added]

Not only does this study substantiate earlier findings as commentary in the Natural Medicine Journal noted, but this way of eating has been shown to have related benefits, “regardless of – or perhaps in part due to – telomere length.” These additional benefits include a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, reduction of abdominal fat and normalization of blood glucose levels.

More than Just Diet

But they also note that diet is just one factor in preserving telomere length.

In 2008, Ornish et al demonstrated that a healthy diet combined with moderate aerobic exercise, stress management, and specific nutrient supplementation increased telomerase activity by nearly 30% during a 3-month period. In 2012, Sun et al’s cross sectional analysis of 5,682 women in the Nurses’ Health Study demonstrated that women who did not smoke, maintained a healthy body weight, exercised regularly, had moderate alcohol intake, and ate a healthy Mediterranean-style diet had a 31.2% increase in telomere length.

While it’s tempting to think in terms of single, simplistic threads of cause and effect, it really is the whole tapestry of lifestyle that affects the level of health we achieve. Weight loss, for instance, isn’t just about calories-in, calories-out. Chronic stress plays a role. Obesogens – chemicals we’re exposed to in the environment that disrupt metabolism and contribute to fat storage – play a role. Hormone balance – and, for many, the use of Bio-identical Hormone Replacement Therapy – also plays a role, as do individual biochemistry and genetics. (We’ll have more to say about solutions for weight loss in future posts.)

We could say something similar for just about any chronic health condition plaguing us today. For the truth is, modern illness is largely multi-factoral, having many causes, many triggers.

And it reminds us that our health is multi-factorial, too.

Top image by Gwen


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