When you come to an intersection, you probably walk when the light is green or the signal icon tells you it's OK to cross. You do not need a multi-year research study to tell you how to proceed. Not so with science-based behaviors. Here, we would need to study years of people walking across the street, controlling for ambient light, traffic density and patterns, weather conditions, color patterns in pedestrian clothing, eyesight, and a number of other factors. If we had been waiting to cross that street we would, in all likelihood, have expired long ago.
So it is with the research findings called "startling" about the health benefits of Mediterranean diets, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of fish, olive oil, and nuts, and healthy wine consumption were linked to big reductions in heart attacks, strokes, and deaths. These are not marginal benefits at the edge of healthy behaviors. They are the big ones.
I am happy for the research. Even while longevity gains continue, they would be far more impressive if people took proper care of themselves. For those who do, typical life spans should be well into the 90s, not the mid-80s, which is the average for all Americans now age 65. Healthier lifestyles are also likely to reduce one of the biggest financial stresses of retirement: big medical bills that aren't fully covered by Medicare. Lifetime out-of-pocket healthcare spending for a typical 65-year-old couple now averages north of $250,000 and can easily be double or triple that for affluent retirees.
Of course, I also was happy years ago when I read about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet in earlier research findings. Beyond physical benefits, it is increasingly likely that this diet also helps ward off Alzheimer's and cognitive decline in general.
Still, we stand on the corner waiting to cross the street. Why?
For many years, the odds have overwhelmingly supported the notion that we can receive a huge future payoff from an investment today in better health, diet, and lifestyle choices. Sadly, the compelling logic of the wellness argument is often defeated by one of the cardinal findings of behavioral economics: People have a lot of trouble making a tangible sacrifice today in exchange for a possible reward in the future. Even if the sacrifice is modest and the reward enormous, the time mismatch is a game-ender for many. It's like positioning the fulcrum of a teeter-totter near one end instead of in the middle. No matter how hard the person on the short end tries, it's just too hard to balance the board.
One way to correct this imbalance is to make the sacrifices seem less difficult and the rewards truly astronomical. You see this approach used all the time. Particularly with diet: The marketing messages stress how easy it is, how little effort is required before those pounds slide away, how you become irresistibly attractive, your life and career improve, you discover eternal life, and so on.
[Read: How to Plan for a Long Life.]
On our teeter totter, diet and exercise are perched on the short end, and improved health and longevity on the long end. And it's at the long end that some astounding future benefits await. Thirty years of vigorous living versus a wheelchair in a neglected corner of a nursing home.—or worse. Regular cardiovascular exercise is also associated with lower rates of dementia. Get your blood flowing, add oxygen, and marvelous healthful results may ensue. We're not talking about running marathons, either. Moderate exercise works if it's done frequently. Spend 30 minutes a day walking and you can be there.
Key components of the Mediterranean lifestyle and diet include:
• Getting plenty of exercise and eating your meals with family and friends
• Eating a generous amount of fruits and vegetables (legumes are best)
• Consuming healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
• Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
• Nuts, chocolate with a high cocoa content, low-fat cheese, and even lots of eggs
• For wine drinkers, a glass a day of red wine is recommended
• Consuming very little red meat
• Eating fish or shellfish two to three times a week, including at least some high-fat fish such as salmon and tuna
The real breakthrough we need, however, is not in research but in figuring out how to change human behavior. It's likely, of course, that it can be costly to follow a Mediterranean diet, placing the best eating practices beyond the budgets of many Americans. But there is no defensible reason healthy and affordable foods can't be more widely available and consumed.
When government tries to mandate healthy behaviors, many people howl about "big brother," such as when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to regulate oversized soft drink containers. We should also be howling when the nation's eating habits lead to chronic diseases that effectively waste hundreds of billions of healthcare dollars each year that we can't afford.