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Following a Mediterranean Diet May Help Reduce the Health Harms of Air Pollution

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You’ve probably heard the Mediterranean diet is good for you. And scientists and registered dietitians agree that’s true: An article published in April 2013 in The New England Journal of Medicine showed the diet, which focuses on eating a plant-based diet with healthy fats and lean sources of protein, may help prevent heart disease, while a study published in April 2017 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggested the approach may help improve brain function.

Now, there may be yet another reason to follow the Mediterranean diet: Research suggests it may help fight off the health harms of air pollution.

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The findings, which are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, will be presented at the American Thoracic Society Conference on May 21, 2018, in San Diego. Results suggest that adhering to the dietary pattern could blunt adverse heart and lung effects caused by acute exposure to air pollution.

Previous research has suggested that eating antioxidant-rich foods, which the Mediterranean diet emphasizes, could reduce the ill effects of air pollution over a short period of time. An article published in December 2015 in the journal Nutrients suggested that an increased intake of antioxidants may reduce the effect of air pollution–induced inflammation in cardiovascular disease, asthma, and other conditions.

But “no study has looked at long-term air pollution exposure and a usual diet pattern,” says study author Chris C. Lim, a doctoral student at The New York University School of Medicine. “That’s why I wanted to look at this as more of an epidemiological study, whereas previous studies have been more experimental or supplementational in nature.”

Analyzing the Link Between a Mediterranean Diet and Air Pollution Effects

Lim and his colleagues analyzed health information from 548,699 men and women, who were 62 years old on average, when they enrolled in the National Institutes of Health–American Association of Retired Persons Diet and Health Study. All of the participants were from the following states or cities: Atlanta, California, Detroit, North Carolina, New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania.

They were separated into five groups based on how closely they followed the Mediterranean diet. Lim used an index, known as the “alternate Mediterranean diet (aMed) score” to categorize the participants. aMed assesses nine components specific to the diet, such as fruit, vegetable, nut, legume, and fish intake. Participants were then linked to estimates of exposure to three types of pollutants — fine particulate matter, nitrous oxide, and ozone — based on census tracts.

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The team found that participants who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely were more protected from adverse effects of long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and nitrous oxide compared with those who were the least adherent to the diet; but the same effect wasn’t present for exposure to ozone. Additionally, researchers looked at specific components of the diet to analyze individual effects.

Lim says fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats had the strongest influence, which he notes are the components of the diet with the most antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.

“Some air pollutants are thought to affect health through a mechanism called oxidative stress,” says Luz Claudio, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who was not involved in the research. According to a study published in September 2014 in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, oxidative stress may be a primary contributor for insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, in Alzheimer’s disease.

“Therefore, it is possible that people who consume more antioxidants in their diet may be better protected from the effects of exposure to such air pollutants,” Dr. Claudio adds.

Previous research has suggested air pollution induces inflammation in humans.

“Those specific foods can interfere with that and provide people with protection, especially in more polluted locations,” Lim says.

RELATED: Is the Mediterranean Diet Best for Diabetes?

While most people can begin reaping these potential benefits by fueling up on Mediterranean diet–friendly foods, such as olive oil, fish, leafy greens, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains, know that the study wasn’t perfect.

What Future Research on Air Pollution and the Mediterranean Diet Could Explore

For example, one of the flaws of the research is that the information may not be generalizable because many of the participants are white and well educated. Additionally, they’re all at least 50 years old, so it’s unclear to the extent which the findings would apply to younger individuals, says another one of the study’s authors, George D. Thurston, ScD, director of the program in exposure assessment and human health affects in the department of environmental Medicine at NYU School of Medicine in New York City.

But Dr. Thurston and Lim both noted that don’t see any reason why the findings would be different in other populations.

Their results shouldn’t “take away from the message that we need to have the air safe to everybody irrespective of what they eat,” Thurston says. “But on the other hand, this is another benefit of eating a healthy diet high in antioxidants that we didn’t know about before.”

In the future, Lim says he’s curious to explore how other dietary indexes, such as DASH or the Alternative Healthy Eating Index, compare with their findings.

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