Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet from regions like Greece, Spain, Italy and Morocco, appears to give a number of health benefits. These include helping us fight off age-related frailty, possibly helping prevent Alzheimer’s and even fighting pulmonary diseases. But why is this? What is so special about the Mediterranean diet? Scientists think they might be closer to the answer.
Researchers from Kings College London, together with scientists from the USA, examined the foods that are traditionally found in a Mediterranean diet. They noticed that the foods were rich in unsaturated fats that are found in things like olive oil, nuts and avocados, along with nitrites and nitrates that are found in vegetables like spinach, celery and carrots. When combined in our diets, they become nitro fatty acids, and it’s this that researchers believe could be the key to maintaining later-life health. The reason is, nitro fatty acids have been shown to lower our blood pressure.
High blood pressure, sometimes called hypertension, is one of the most common problems affecting the adult population. This is caused by a number of other health complaints, the most common being obesity and stress. In turn, it is a major risk factor for potentially fatal health problems like stroke, heart disease and a range of cardiovascular diseases. As a result, anything that lowers blood pressure could be a big boost to our health.
To test whether the nitro fatty acids worked in the way the researchers suspected, they took a small group of mice (more on the animal research below) that were genetically engineered so their bodies would resist the enzyme known to lower blood pressure, Epoxide Hydrolase. Unsurprisingly, when they were tested, the mice had high blood pressure. The research showed that even when fed a diet rich in the nitro fatty acids that form from consuming the Mediterranean diet, the mice still had high blood pressure, namely because the enzyme couldn’t function in the subjects’ bodies.
Then, when tested on mice that hadn’t been genetically altered, it was found that the nitro fatty acids appeared to lower the blood pressure of the normal mice, and with relative swiftness. What this tells us is that nitro fatty acids seem to turn on the body’s blood pressure regulation system. Mediterranean diets, therefore, could really help the body fight high blood pressure.
Professor Philip Eaton, Professor of Cardiovascular Biochemistry at King’s College London, told the BBC that as humans rely on the same enzyme, the benefits should translate into human diets: “It’s nature’s protective mechanism. If we can tap into this we could make new drugs for treating high blood pressure and preventing heart disease.”
The research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was supported by the British Health Foundation.
As with all research of this nature, this is an ongoing investigation and more studies — specifically on human subjects — are needed in order to move toward definite answers.
It does, however, give us the chance to look at what dietary changes we might make to model the effects of the Mediterranean diet without necessarily adopting it entirely. The diet is rich in vegetables, whole grains, seafood and also counts red wine as a staple. As a reminder that research is ongoing, the health benefits of red wine were recently called into question, but when it comes to most of the other dietary ingredients on the list, the science appears fairly solid.
Most important in this research appears to be combining things like extra-virgin olive oil (which, incidentally, might be good for you even if you just smell it) and leafy green vegetables, supplemented with snacks like nuts and fruits. These are easy additions to mostly any diet, and particularly lend themselves to summer salads.
For more ideas on how to include more Mediterranean style foods in your diet, please click here.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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