Imagine a non-drug way to lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, depression and possibly some forms of cancer and dementia. To top it off, this preventive “therapy” involves eating foods that most people find delicious.
If you think this sounds like a too-good-to-be-true bit of unproven quackery, think again.
It’s not a health fad but the way of eating long popular in Mediterranean countries. While the typical American diet is loaded with processed foods, lots of meat and dairy products, Mediterranean meals are built around a variety of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, nuts and legumes. The Mediterranean diet also includes lots of olive oil, a moderate intake of fish and alcohol, and a low intake of dairy, meats and sweets.
Evidence in multiple studies has shown this style of eating offers a wide range of health benefits. In fact, the latest research — a large study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine — demonstrated that following the Mediterranean diet could cut the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease by an astounding 30%.
This was the first major clinical trial to specifically measure the diet’s impact on heart risks. Other studies have suggested the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. But there wasn’t conclusive evidence, until now, that it is the actual foods consumed and not some other lifestyle factors that help protect the heart health of people in Mediterranean countries.
The new study, conducted by Dr. Ramon Estruch, a professor of medicine at the University of Barcelona, and his colleagues, used rigorous scientific methods to clearly show the Mediterranean style of eating is a powerful and effective way to reduce heart disease risk. The researchers randomly assigned 7,447 people in Spain who had risk factors for heart disease (such as being overweight, having diabetes or smoking) to eat the Mediterranean way or to follow a low-fat diet.
The low-fat diets, it turned out, were hard to follow. What’s more, they didn’t lower heart attack risk. On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet was enjoyable and slashed the odds of having a heart attack so dramatically that the startled researcher ended the study earlier than they had planned, after about five years.
More evidence of health benefits associated with eating the Mediterranean way.
Reducing Prostate Cancer Risk
A research review published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research by urology experts Allison Hodge, MD, and Catherine Itsiopoulos, MD, concluded data from multiple studies links a reduced risk of prostate cancer with a traditional Mediterranean style diet. Dr. Hodge and Dr. Itsiopoulos pointed out that this traditional way of eating among the Greeks and other Mediterranean people provides adequate fiber, antioxidants and healthy fats which may explain the diet’s benefits.
In a statement to the media, the researchers concluded this dietary approach “is consistent with what humans have evolved to consume and may protect against common chronic diseases, including prostate cancer.” They also noted that numerous studies show the Mediterranean eating style has other health benefits — including a reduction in death rates from all causes, including cardiovascular and cancer deaths, as well as a decreased incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Fighting depression. Because the rate of mental disorders over the course of a lifetime is lower in the Mediterranean region than in Northern European countries, a team of scientists from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Clinic of the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, set out to see if diet played a role in the development of clinical depression. They investigated the foods eaten most frequently by 10,094 healthy Spanish participants. After approximately 4.4 years of follow-up, the people who had followed the Mediterranean diet most closely had a greater than 30% reduction in the risk of developing depression compared to those who didn’t eat Mediterranean style meals.
“The specific mechanisms by which a better adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern could help to prevent the occurrence of depression are not well known,” the authors wrote in their research paper, which was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. “Components of the diet may improve blood vessel function, fight inflammation, reduce risk for heart disease and repair oxygen-related cell damage, all of which may decrease the chances of developing depression.” In fact, previous research has also indicated monounsaturated fatty acids in olive oil, which are used abundantly in the Mediterranean diet, can lower the risk of clinical depression.
Hope for dementia prevention. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) robs people of the ability to think, remember and reason. It is an irreversible, progressive disease that eventually destroys even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks — and there is currently no effective treatment. However, researchers have long known that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is lower in Mediterranean countries than in many other areas of the world and recent studies have suggested that olive oil, which is abundant in Mediterranean meals, is the key. A team of scientists in the Department of Basic Pharmaceutical
Science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe published a study in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, showing that a component of olive oil called oleocanthal helps shuttle abnormal proteins associated with AD out of the brain. “Extra-virgin olive oil-derived oleocanthal associated with the consumption of the Mediterranean diet has the potential to reduce the risk of AD or related neurodegenerative dementias,” the scientists concluded.
Managing Type 2 Diabetes
In one of the longest randomized trials of its kind, European scientists compared the low-fat diet for type 2 diabetes management typically prescribed by doctors to a Mediterranean style diet rich in “good” fats (Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and monosaturated fats in olive oil), veggies and whole grains. The results of the study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, show the Mediterranean diet dramatically improved type 2 diabetes, and even eliminated the need for many people to take blood glucose regulating medication. What’s more, three previous large prospective studies have shown that eating a lot of vegetables and fruits, essential parts of the Mediterranean diet, reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the first place.
Tips for Eating the Mediterranean Way
Fortunately, adopting a Mediterranean-style isn’t difficult. The Mayo Clinic website offers these ways to get started:
- Eliminate or keep to a minimum your intake of red meat and aim to eat fish at least once a week.
- Avoid frying or using heavy sauces. Instead, use healthy oils like olive oil and canola oil.
- Eat primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
- Eat nuts such as walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts and almonds in moderation for snacks and add them to salads.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods.
- Drink red wine in moderation (optional).