The Mediterranean diet is characterised by a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits, and cereals; a moderate to high intake of fish; a low intake of saturated fats, but high intake of unsaturated fats, particularly olive oil; a low intake of dairy products and meat; and a modest intake of alcohol, mostly as wine.
Current evidence suggests that such a diet may be beneficial to health.
The study involved over 74,000 healthy men and women, aged 60 or more, living in nine European countries. Information on diet, lifestyle, medical history, smoking, physical activity levels, and other relevant factors was recorded. Adherence to a modified Mediterranean diet was measured using a recognised scoring scale.
A higher dietary score was associated with a lower overall death rate. A two point increase corresponded to an 8% reduction in mortality, while a three or four point increase was associated with a reduction of total mortality by 11% or 14% respectively.
So, for example, a healthy man aged 60 who adheres well to the diet (dietary score of 6-9) can expect to live about one year longer than a man of the same age who does not adhere to the diet.
The association was strongest in Greece and Spain, probably because people in these countries follow a genuinely Mediterranean diet, say the authors.
Adherence to a Mediterranean type diet, which relies on plant foods and unsaturated fats, is associated with a significantly longer life expectancy, and may be particularly appropriate for elderly people, who represent a rapidly increasing group in Europe, they conclude.