In a groundbreaking study, older adults who adopted a lower-calorie Mediterranean diet and engaged in modest physical activity up to six days a week witnessed substantial muscle gain and a significant reduction in body fat that was maintained over three years, according to new research findings.
The study, which forms part of an eight-year randomized clinical trial in Spain, sought to evaluate how lifestyle modifications, specifically diet and exercise, could mitigate cardiovascular risk in individuals between the ages of 55 and 75 who were overweight or obese and suffered from metabolic syndrome – a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, altered cholesterol levels, and excess abdominal fat.
The results, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, revealed that individuals following a Mediterranean diet with a 30% calorie reduction, coupled with the curbing of added sugar, refined grains, butter, processed meats, and sugary drinks, experienced a notable redistribution of body composition, favoring muscle over fat. Moreover, participants in this intervention group also witnessed a reduction in dangerous visceral belly fat, which has been linked to conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Visceral fat, concealed behind abdominal muscles and surrounding vital organs, becomes problematic when it constitutes more than 10% of an individual’s total fat mass, leading to inflammation and contributing to chronic illnesses.
Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine, hailed the study’s findings, remarking that it demonstrated “a calorie-controlled Mediterranean diet plus exercise does not simply produce weight loss; it results in a redistribution of body composition from fat to muscle.”
The study’s design called for half of the participants to adhere to the Mediterranean diet and progressive aerobic exercise, with additional emphasis on strength, flexibility, and balance training. The other half served as a control group, receiving general advice in semi-annual group sessions.
While the intervention group did experience some weight regain in the second and third years, the amount of body fat they initially lost was significantly more than that of the control group, which retained stable body fat levels.
Moreover, the study noted that only participants in the intervention group achieved a reduction in grams of visceral fat mass, underlining the significance of combining calorie control with exercise to effect such a positive outcome.
Dr. Walter Willett, a leading nutrition researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, emphasized the importance of providing support and resources to facilitate this transformative shift in metabolic status, stressing the benefits it could have for both individuals and society.
This comprehensive study provides a promising pathway to counteract the harmful effects of visceral fat, underlining the importance of the Mediterranean diet as an effective tool for mitigating various health risks. This dietary approach, characterized by an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and olive oil, is not only associated with a range of health benefits but also promotes a sense of well-being by encouraging social interactions, mindful eating, and physical activity.
In light of these findings, the potential to transition from mere weight loss to the mobilization of harmful visceral fat underscores the value of a balanced lifestyle encompassing a Mediterranean diet and regular exercise. The future could well see more widespread adoption of these principles, heralding a new era of health and well-being for older adults.