A new study suggests that following a Mediterranean diet plan can change your gut microbiome for the better.

By Renee Cherry
February 19, 2020

When it comes to nutrition, people living around the Mediterranean are doing it right, and not just because they embrace the occasional glass of red. Thanks to a load of favorable research on the Mediterranean diet, it's topped U.S. News & World Report's list of best diets for three years in a row. There's a lot to love about the diet, but a new study highlights one of its most exciting strengths: the potential for promoting gut health. The study, published in the medical journal BMJ, suggests that following the diet might change gut health in a way that promotes longevity.

Here's what happened: Of 612 elderly people from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland, 323 followed a Mediterranean diet for a year, and the rest continued eating as they always did for the same 12-month period. While the Mediterranean diet generally has loose guidelines, the study authors defined it as a diet plan focused on "increased consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, olive oil and fish and low consumption of red meat and dairy products and saturated fats," according to their paper. The subjects also provided stool samples at the beginning and end of the year-long study, and researchers tested the samples to find out the microbial makeup of their gut microbiomes.

A quick word on the gut microbiome (in case you're thinking, WTF even is that and why should I care?): There are trillions of bacteria living inside your body and on top of your skin—many of which reside in the intestines. Your gut microbiome refers to that intestinal bacteria, and research shows the gut microbiome can play a huge role in your well-being, including your immune system and cardiovascular health (more on the gut microbiome in a bit).

Back to the study: The results revealed a link between following the Mediterranean diet and having certain types of bacteria that are associated with increased short-chain fatty acid production and reduced inflammation. (Short-chain fatty acids are compounds that may protect against disease-causing inflammation.) What's more, the Mediterranean dieters' stool samples showed fewer types of bacteria that have been linked to type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries), cirrhosis (liver disease), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), compared to the stool samples of subjects in the study who didn't follow the Mediterranean diet. Translation: Compared to the guts of people who follow other diets, Mediterranean dieters' guts seem to be better equipped to fight off inflammation and a variety of illnesses. (Related: 50 Easy Mediterranean Diet Recipes and Meal I)

It gets better: When researchers analyzed certain types of bacteria that were more prevalent in people who had followed the Mediterranean diet, they found that the Mediterranean dieters' bacteria was linked to better grip strength and brain function compared to the bacteria of subjects who followed other diets. In other words, adopting the Mediterranean diet seems to promote a healthy gut balance that's key to slowing both physical and mental aging. And, to be clear, the Mediterranean diet's potential benefits for gut health "are not restricted to elderly subjects," as shown by other research on the subject, the study authors wrote.

To that point, the study authors noted that their paper isn't the only research linking the Mediterranean diet to good gut health. One 2016 study and another 2017 study similarly found a link between following the diet and increased short-chain fatty acid production (aka those compounds that can help protect the body from disease-causing inflammation).

Why You Should Care About the Link Between the Mediterranean Diet and Gut Health

Many nutrition experts consider eating a diverse diet to be critical for maintaining a balanced gut, and the Mediterranean diet allows for variety. It also emphasizes foods that are rich in fiber, which boosts the population of good gut bugs.

So, why should you care? Again, gut health plays an important role in overall health. More specifically: "The intestinal microbiome is in communication with our entire system, including immune and neurological," says Mark R. Engelman, M.D., director of clinical consulting for Cyrex Laboratories. "It has billions of organisms that feed on its contents, mainly in the colon." And the Mediterranean diet seems to give good gut bacteria the food and environment they need for success, explains Dr. Engelman. "[The good bacteria] send out very important signals to our entire body that promote wellness," he says. "One very important way is to keep inflammation low." (BTW, here's how inflammation can affect the body—plus how to start following an anti-inflammatory diet meal plan.)

If you needed yet another reason to love the Mediterranean diet, you've got it. Says Dr. Engelman: "This latest study and many others strongly support that this is the way to eat for optimum health and longevity."

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