THE MEDITERREANEAN DIET REVISITED : IMMUNE REJUVENATION & HEALTHY AGING
by Jeffrey Bland , Ph . D ., FACN President and Founder Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute
Greek Island of Ikaria
In 2008 , a frameshifting book about health and longevity was published The Blue Zones : Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who ’ ve Lived the Longest . Not only did it become a bestseller for Dan Buettner , an award-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow , it also sparked worldwide interest and dialogue about the characteristics associated with long life and good health . While the book became especially popular with baby boomers who were approaching milestone birthdays , another group took a keen interest in the material as well : scientists who were studying the underlying biological processes associated with aging and making key discoveries that had the power to impact millions of lives both now and in the future .
What is a Blue Zone ? These are unique regions of the world where longevity and good health are common among the local populations that live there . Several of these Blue Zones are located around the Mediterranean region , and one is a particular standout : the Greek Island of Ikaria . Some people go so far as to describe Ikaria as an island where people forget to die . This is because one-third of the population live into their 90s , and they do so without developing dementia or chronic diseases that have become common among similarly aged individuals living in the United States . In short , the citizens of Ikaria seemingly enjoy both lifespan and healthspan , which mean not just more years , but — significantly — more healthy years .
Of course , researchers have been examining the lifestyle patterns of the Blue Zones for many years now . Food , nutrition , and dietary habits — these are central variables in the study of any culture . Enter , the Mediterranean diet — a term you ’ ve no doubt seen or heard and perhaps wondered about .
Within these Mediterranean Blue Zones , people consume lots of fresh fruits and vegetables , whole grain products , extra virgin olive oil , fresh fish , beans , nuts and seeds , spices , herbs , garlic , and wine . The intake of red meat and processed foods ( including those containing simple sugar ) is very limited . Although these broad guidelines and their integration into daily food plans can vary from region to region , it is believed ( and evidence supports ) that these staple foods impact the prevalence of age-related chronic diseases and life expectancy in different countries within the Mediterranean region .
An important research project focused on the Mediterranean diet was launched in 2018 . It was called the NU-AGE Study , and it was a one-year randomized trial that aimed to personalize Mediterranean dietary approaches among people age 65 and older . The first NU-AGE reports are now becoming available , and one of the most dramatic observations that has been published is a finding that in individuals who consumed a Mediterranean diet for at least a year , their immune systems were found to be “ younger ” after committing to this style of eating . It ’ s not an exaggeration to say that observation is a bit revolutionary because it demonstrates that the Mediterranean diet can influence immune system function , and more specifically a natural process in the body that is known as immune rejuvenation .
Let ’ s go back to Ikaria , that beautiful island that boasts long lifespans and long healthspans . What does the Ikarian version of the Mediterranean diet look like ? The grapes and virgin olive oil they consume are rich in plant nutrients called phytochemicals , and these phytochemicals contain organic compounds that are called polyphenols . Their diet also includes whole grains , which contain flavonoids , and cruciferous vegetables that feature glucosinolates . Fresh fish — caught daily in the sea that surrounds the island — is packed with healthy omega-3 fatty
26 Vol 41 • Extraordinary Health ™