April 5, 2007 — -- Following the Mediterranean diet, one that is rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, may help protect against allergies and asthma, according to new research.
British scientists surveyed the parents of nearly 700 children in the Greek island of Crete to assess their respiratory symptoms and dietary habits. They found that at least twice a day, eight out of 10 children ate fresh fruit, and two-thirds ate fresh vegetables.
The health benefits appeared to be strongest in terms of respiratory problems. Children who followed this healthy diet were less likely to develop air or skin allergies, or asthma symptoms.
Many adults and children suffer from allergies and asthma, their lungs constantly bombarded by foreign bodies, or allergens in the air. When these allergens -- such as pollen and dust -- enter the body, the immune system believes they are harmful. In an effort to protect itself, the body sends out antibodies to fight off the allergens.
A side effect of this defense mechanism is the production of histamine, the chemical responsible for the nasty symptoms we link to allergies, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, or a sore throat.
"What the body needs is a balance between what we breathe in, and the body's reaction," says study author Dr. Paul Cullinan, from the Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.
"In Crete, hardly any children have allergies," Cullinan says. "One explanation is their diet."
The Mediterranean diet is chock full of healthy foods like grapes, tomatoes, and nuts. According to the scientists, these foods provide the most benefits based on their antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are known for their disease-fighting ability. They work to sop-up the so-called free radicals left over in the body as a byproduct of a cell's day-to-day functions.
"(Antioxidants) are good for heart disease, good for cancer, and now asthma as well," says Cullinan.
Snacking on nuts also had a positive effect. Nuts like walnuts or almonds pack a powerful magnesium punch, which past research has suggested may boost lung power and protect against asthma.
While these foods all provide benefits alone, "it's the package that's more important," says Cullinan.
To get the full benefits seen in this study, it's more important to integrate all the foods into your diet, and not just one or two, he explained.
"It is difficult to determine which exact food might be the cause," he says, adding that the children and adults of Crete eat very little of what many of us are used to eating, including fast food or pre-packaged snacks. "I'm not going to say that diet is the answer to everything, but it's certainly important."
So what can we learn from the children in Crete? Cullinan says the take home message isn't very exciting.
"Fruit and veggies have the most health benefit," he says, "Just like your granny told you."