In Greek mythology, a magical, powerful elixir -- the drink of choice of the immortal gods -- is known for bestowing longevity (even immortality) upon the person who consumes it. This coveted elixir -- known as ambrosia -- possesses time-defying powers that will somehow magically restore youth, vibrancy, and beauty. In Homer's Odyssey, Athena cleanses the middle-aged Penelope with ambrosia to erase the markings of time from her body.
Right. Well, the bad news is....this doesn't really exist. It's mythology, after all.
The good news is...we've got something that comes pretty close. And it was right under Zeus' nose the entire time.
The Greeks may have attributed their drinking of ambrosia (which researchers now believe to be honey) to their long, healthy, vibrant lives. The irony is, it wasn't the ambrosia. It was their diet.
The Mediterranean diet has withstood the test of time when it comes to living longer, healthier lives. It is the ONLY diet that has been scientifically proven to increase longevity and protect cellular health.
(SIDE NOTE: I hesitate to use the word "diet." Diet implies something fleeting -- a temporary plan you follow to achieve your ideal weight and once there, you ditch the plan. But because this particular nutritional plan has the word "diet" in the name, we'll stick with it for now. Just keep in mind this "diet" is not something you do as a one-time-thing. It's a diet-for-life kind of diet.)
Proof of Longevity
The Mediterranean Diet first coined its name in the 1960s when researchers began studying the diets of countries where the average lifespan was particularly high -- this included a high number of centenarians. Researchers discovered that the vast majority of these countries were located around the Mediterranean.
Since then, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association have both recommended the Mediterranean diet to reduce heart disease and type 2 diabetes, respectively. A 2008 study in the BMJ (published by the National Institute of Health) revealed strict adherence to a Mediterranean diet correlated with a decreased risk of dying from cancer by 6%. Another study published by the NIH tracked 512 individuals over a period of time and found that greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with improved memory and reductions in several risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. In the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, evidence showed those who followed a Mediterranean diet over their lifespan had a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased incidences of cancer, decreased neurodegenerative diseases, fewer diagnoses of type 2 diabetes, and fewer early deaths as compared to the control group who did not consume a Mediterranean diet.
Lastly, Dr. Ancel Keys -- the famous American physiologist who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1961 -- emphasized the diet of Mediterranean peoples as the ideal diet for health and longevity and one he adhered to religiously. Dr. Keys lived to be 100.
The Mediterranean diet has a few variations, but in general, it prioritizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts & seeds, seafood, and olive oil. The following is an apt guide:
high consumption of olive oil
8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day
medium to high consumption of seafood and fish, minimal consumption of red meat or pork
whole grains & legumes
nuts & seeds
heart-healthy fats (salmon, olive oil, avocados)
8oz of red wine (optional)
and in moderation
dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt)
poultry (eggs, chicken)
other highly processed foods
Why it Works
Following this nutritional plan includes all of the good stuff and controls inflammation from toxins. By eating 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, you're consuming a high level of essential vitamins and minerals and likely receiving 100% of the daily recommended intake. The healthy fats in olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, and salmon will improve cholesterol levels by lowering LDL cholesterol; they also include the powerhouse omega-3's for building and maintaining a healthy body. The fiber from whole grains will improve digestive health. Limiting dairy and red meat will reduce intake of saturated fats. Avoiding added sugars and highly processed foods will improve brain health and insulin levels and will help reduce inflammation and toxins that lead to cancer.
The Mediterranean diet is high in antioxidants. Antioxidants help fight oxidative stress in the body. Oxidation is normal to a certain extent, but too much oxidation enters the realm of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress comes from inflammation in the body and destroys our cells (all types of cells), proteins, and even our DNA. So, the more oxidative stress we have, the quicker we age. The quicker we show signs of aging and the quicker our bodies begin to break down. HOWEVER! a diet high in antioxidants can combat oxidative stress and thus, delay the aging process.
Our bodies need nutrients to function well -- if they don't receive those nutrients, things go awry. The Mediterranean diet ensures we're getting the nutrients our bodies need to repair themselves, fight infection, and live long, vibrant lives. While there's no magic elixir for immortality, the the Mediterranean diet comes pretty close. I mean, heck -- it's the diet of the gods!