“Surprised by the magnitude of the effects” is how the Mediterranean diet is described by members of a research team studying the benefits of the diet on women in midlife. If the Mediterranean diet brings such robust vitality to middle-aged women past their childbearing years, imagine what it can do for young women and the children they bear.

Fran Grodstein and Meir Stampfer co-authored the study from the Harvard School of Public Health. Their study went far beyond so many studies that examine the role of a particular diet for short periods of time. The exhaustive Harvard study encompassed more than 10,000 women who completed detailed surveys of their dietary habits every two years for an average of 15 years. The study began in the 1980s, when the median age for all study participants was 59.

In addition to dietary surveys every two years, each woman was put through a regimen of tests to assess memory and physical function. Medical history was updated to include diagnoses of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, dementia, arthritis, and other common age-related chronic conditions.

Women enjoying the plant-based Mediterranean diet throughout the study were found to be 40 percent more likely to age more gracefully than the study participants who ate differently. The women dining Mediterranean-style were more likely to live into their senior years without much chronic illness, memory loss, or physical ailments that impair mobility and shorten lifespan

The diet is based on the natural diet enjoyed for centuries by the people living along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s rich in fish and seafood, fruits, vegetables, and nuts such as almonds and pine nuts. Olive oil is used instead of saturated fats such as butter or margarine; cooking oils made from other crops, such as corn and soy, are not used, either. Meat and cheese are limited, as are foods made from refined starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, and potatoes.

Key elements of the Mediterranean lifestyle include eating locally harvested foods in season as fresh and simply prepared as possible. Wine is enjoyed regularly but in moderation. Physical activity is a routine part of daily life; walking, swimming, and riding bicycles are common activities. The people of the Mediterranean rarely slog through their golden years. People in this part of the world are known for their exceptionally good health well into old age.

Young families who make the Mediterranean diet a part of their overall lifestyle are likely to enjoy robust vitality while teaching children how to make wise, nutritious food choices. Good habits such as healthy eating during childhood sets the pace for optimum health throughout life.

Source: Cécilia Samieri, Qi Sun, Mary K. Townsend, Stephanie E. Chiuve, Olivia I. Okereke, Walter C. Willett, Meir Stampfer, Francine Grodstein; The Association Between Dietary Patterns at Midlife and Health in Aging, An Observational Study. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013 Nov;159(9):584-591. Retrieved 15 Nov 2013.