Protect Your Heart by Eating a Mediterranean Diet

Healthnotes Newswire (August 30, 2007)—The Mediterranean diet has been widely acclaimed—and for good reason. New research shows that people who eat a Mediterranean diet are less likely to die from heart disease, especially if they have diabetes.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States and other Western countries. The major risk factors for heart disease—smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight or obese—are influenced by the choices we make in our daily lives.

Much of nutrition research has focused on identifying relationships between single nutrients or foods and disease risk, but each nutrient is part of a food, and each food is likely to be part of a meal—in other words, it’s a complex package. How foods and combinations of foods affect nutrient absorption and activity is still poorly understood. In the last decade, several important studies have looked at eating combinations of foods for disease prevention, particularly heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet includes lots of plant foods and fish, moderate amounts of wine, and small amounts of animal foods. It is rich in monounsaturated fats (found especially in olive oil and some nuts), omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (from fish), fiber, and plant chemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. In previous studies, people who ate a Mediterranean diet were found to have a lower risk of heart disease.

The new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, included information from more than 40,000 people who had been interviewed and answered diet questionnaires and were then monitored for an average of 10 years. People whose diets most closely resembled the Mediterranean diet—high in garlic, cucumber, olive oil, salad greens, cayenne pepper, beans and lentils, feta and ricotta cheeses, olives, steamed fish, and boiled chicken—were 30% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease over the course of the study than people whose diets were lowest in these foods.

For people with diabetes, the effect of the Mediterranean diet was even more pronounced: those who ate the most Mediterranean foods had 80% fewer deaths from heart disease than those who ate the least Mediterranean foods.

“Many qualities of a diet rich in plant foods could contribute to the health benefits,” the study’s authors said of their results, pointing out that plant foods contain high amounts of antioxidants such as flavonoids and vitamins C and E, minerals, folic acid, and fiber, all of which have been found to protect against heart disease.

“Our Mediterranean factor [diet] was also characterized by the infrequent intake of certain foods such as cream, sour cream, ice cream, chocolate, sausages, jams, honey, cake, and sweet biscuits. These foods are low in fiber and high in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and salt,” aspects of a diet that has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. The researchers added, “The avoidance of these foods in the Mediterranean factor may partially explain the cardiovascular benefits observed in our study, especially among persons with diabetes.”

(Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:221–9)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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