Would you like to be able to improve your health by what you put on your plate? Health professionals and patients alike may doubt that diet can be as powerful as pills. When it comes to important benefits such as preventing heart attacks and strokes, reducing the risk of diabetes or delaying dementia, doctors like medication. Strong evidence now shows, however, that a traditional Mediterranean diet rivals medications when it comes to these important health conditions.
Studying the Mediterranean Diet:
Spanish scientists made an impressive contribution when they published the first results of their PREDIMED study (New England Journal of Medicine, Apr. 4, 2013). PREDIMED stands for Prevencion con Dieta Mediterranea, which means about what you might guess.
This was a randomized, controlled trial, a rarity in dietary studies. It included almost 7,500 people who did not have heart disease at the start of the study but were at high risk for it. (They were overweight or had diabetes or high blood pressure.) They were randomly assigned to follow a Mediterranean diet with additional extra-virgin olive oil; a Mediterranean diet with additional nuts; or a prudent low-fat diet of the type usually recommended by the American Heart Association.
Sticking with the Mediterranean Style of Eating for a Healthy Heart:
The researchers had no trouble getting the Spanish study subjects to stick with the Mediterranean diet plans. The investigators supplied the extra olive oil and nuts, which made following the diet even easier. The volunteers gravitated toward a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and fish, with little milk, meat or sweets. People had more difficulty following a really low-fat diet.
Still, the differences were significant. After less than five years, people in the Mediterranean diet groups had suffered approximately 30 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes and deaths due to cardiovascular causes than those in the low-fat diet control group. That compares quite well to the use of statins. These cholesterol-lowering drugs reduce the possibility of such an event by about 25 percent (JAMA Cardiology, June 1, 2016). (This is relative risk in both cases; absolute risk reduction is much lower.)
Can You Help Your Brain by Eating Like a Spaniard or an Italian?
Heart disease is not the only chronic health problem that might be forestalled with a tasty menu full of vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts and olive oil. PREDIMED data also demonstrate that those on an olive oil based Mediterranean diet are less likely to develop dementia or cognitive problems (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, Dec., 2013). Perhaps that is because those in the Mediterranean diet groups were less likely to suffer a stroke (Diabetes Care, Aug., 2013) A stroke results from damage to the circulatory system in the brain. Such damage can also lead to cognitive decline.
Counteracting Genetic Susceptibility:
Eating Mediterranean-style was able to blunt the impact of genetic variants that put some people at greater risk for diabetes and for stroke. A recently published study shows that people with diabetes are only about half as likely to develop diabetic retinopathy if they follow a Mediterranean diet with at least two servings a week of fish and seafood (JAMA Ophthalmology, online Aug. 18, 2016). This complication of diabetes is one of the leading causes of blindness among working age people. (You can learn more about protecting your vision from our interview with Dr. Peter McDonnell, director of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.)
How to Eat Mediterranean-Style:
So how can you get these benefits for yourself? A meta-analysis of studies on Mediterranean-type diets used seven criteria (Annals of Internal Medicine, July 19, 2016):
- Most of the fat in the diet is monounsaturated, from olive oil or nuts.
- The basis of the diet is vegetables and fruits.
- The diet provides plenty of beans, peas and lentils.
- Breads or cereal products in the diet are whole grain, mostly.
- Dairy products are limited.
- Meat is rare, but fish is more common as a menu item.
- Wine, especially red wine, is permitted in moderation.
The meta-analysis shows that people following a Mediterranean diet based on these principles are less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. That seems to us like a lot of benefit to be gained from eating delicious food with friends.
If you’d like more guidance on how to follow this healthful way of eating, you’ll find it in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.