Mediterranean meal being shared.

Researchers looked at not just the Mediterranean diet, but also the lifestyle, which includes habits promoting adequate rest, physical activity, and socialization.

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Mortality benefits of Mediterranean diet know no boundaries

3 min read

Study one of few to examine health benefits in a non-Mediterranean context and to assess the impact of overall Mediterranean lifestyle

People who adhere to a Mediterranean lifestyle — which includes a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; healthy eating habits like limiting added salts and sugars; and habits promoting adequate rest, physical activity, and socialization — have a lower risk of all-cause and cancer mortality, according to a new study led by La Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

People who adhered to the lifestyle’s emphasis on rest, exercise, and socializing had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

The study was published today in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

While many studies have established the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, little research has been conducted on the diet outside of its region of origin.

“This study suggests that it’s possible for non-Mediterranean populations to adopt the Mediterranean diet using locally available products and to adopt the overall Mediterranean lifestyle within their own cultural contexts,” said lead author Mercedes Sotos Prieto, Ramon y Cajal research fellow at La Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and adjunct assistant professor of environmental health at the Harvard Chan School. “We’re seeing the transferability of the lifestyle and its positive effects on health.”

The researchers analyzed the habits of 110,799 members of the U.K. Biobank cohort, a population-based study across England, Wales, and Scotland using the Mediterranean Lifestyle (MEDLIFE) index, which is derived from a lifestyle questionnaire and diet assessments. Participants, who were between the ages of 40 and 75, provided information about their lifestyles according to the three categories the index measures:

  • “Mediterranean food consumption” (intake of foods included in the Mediterranean diet, such as fruits and whole grains);
  • “Mediterranean dietary habits” (adherence to habits and practices around meals, including limiting salt and drinking healthy beverages); and
  • “Physical activity, rest, and social habits and conviviality” (adherence to lifestyle habits including regular naps, exercising, and spending time with friends).

Each item within the three categories was then scored, with higher total scores indicating closer adherence to the Mediterranean lifestyle.

The researchers followed up nine years later to examine participants’ health outcomes. Among the study population, 4,247 died from all causes; 2,401 from cancer; and 731 from cardiovascular disease. Analyzing these results alongside MEDLIFE scores, the researchers observed an inverse association between adherence to the Mediterranean lifestyle and risk of mortality. Participants with higher MEDLIFE scores were found to have a 29 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 28 percent lower risk of cancer mortality compared with those with lower MEDLIFE scores. Adherence to each MEDLIFE category independently was associated with lower all-cause and cancer mortality risk. The “physical activity, rest, and social habits and conviviality” category was most strongly associated with these lowered risks, and additionally was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

Other Harvard Chan co-authors included Stefanos Kales.

Funding for the study came from the Carlos III Health Institute; the Secretary of R+D+I; the European Regional Development Fund/European Social Fund; the National Plan on Drugs; Fundación Soria Melguizo; Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities; Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Cancer Research U.K. Population Research Fellowship; and World Cancer Research Fund.