Nuts, olive oil, a little wine, pasta with vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits and fish, with some red meat, cheese and poultry on the side, are the basis of the widely-praised Mediterranean diet.

The eating habits from the Mediterranean have been found to reduce mortality and the risk of a variety of serious medical conditions, including cancer and heart disease.

Fruits, vegetables and nuts are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Now a new study from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital suggests that the source of these benefits may lie at the ends of our DNA.

The results suggest that healthy eating can have a direct effect on telomere length.

Telomeres sit on the ends of chromosomes and protect our genetic material from degradation as we age. The telomeres themselves slowly shorten over time, making our DNA more susceptible to damage. And this damage leaves us vulnerable to a variety of age-related problems, from cancer to cognitive decline. For these reasons, telomere length is considered to be a benchmark for aging.

Since short telomeres are known to be linked to lower life expectancies and a greater risk of age-related disease, the research team was interested in seeing if people who ate a Mediterranean diet increased overall health by preserving telomere integrity.

They analyzed the telomere length of more than 4500 healthy women and found that those who ate a Mediterranean-type diet — with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and less meat — had longer telomeres. The results suggest that healthy eating can have a direct effect on telomere length, at least in women.

“Our results further support the benefits of adherence to this diet to promote health and longevity,” Immaculata De Vivo, senior author of the study said in a news release.

Future research is needed to determine which components of the diet specifically contribute to this observation, information that will help scientists to better understand the biological mechanism of aging. The research team also hopes to figure out how genetic background might be involved in the protection of telomeres.

The study is published in BMJ, The British Medical Journal.