The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed as a key to good health and longevity. And this may be one reason why.
A new study from Italy found a link between eating fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes — foods all typical of a Mediterranean diet — and health-promoting short chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
SCFAs are produced by bacteria in the gut when the body digests fiber. SCFAs are known to promote health by reducing the risk of inflammatory diseases, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
"We provide here tangible evidence of the impact of a healthy diet and a Mediterranean dietary pattern on gut microbiota and on the beneficial regulation of microbial metabolism towards health maintenance in the host," wrote lead study author Danilo Ercolini, PhD, an associate professor in microbiology at the Department of Food Science at the University of Naples, and colleagues. "Western omnivore diets are not necessarily detrimental when a certain consumption level of [plant] foods is included."
For this study, Dr. Ercolini and team recorded the food intake of 153 participants in Italy. These participants included 51 omnivores, 51 vegetarians and 51 vegans.
When these researchers looked at the levels of bacteria in the participants' guts, they found that about 88 percent of the vegans, 65 percent of the vegetarians and 30 percent of the omnivores ate a primarily Mediterranean diet.
A Mediterranean diet typically includes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and fish. A moderate alcohol intake and a low saturated fat, red meat and dairy intake is also typical of this diet.
Higher levels of SCFAs were found in the vegans, the vegetarians and those who consistently ate a Mediterranean diet.
Levels of trimethylamine oxide (a compound that has been linked to cardiovascular disease) were also significantly lower in the vegetarians and vegans than in the omnivores.
But the more omnivores closely followed a Mediterranean diet, the lower were their levels of this compound.
This study was published Sept. 28 in the journal The BMJ.
The Italian Ministry of University funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.