Will the Mediterranean diet protect your heart? Such diets have a reputation as a tasty way to cut your risk of heart disease. Previous randomized controlled trials, such as the Lyon Diet Heart Study and the PREDIMED study were conducted in Mediterranean countries. So is it possible for Americans to benefit by following a Mediterranean style eating pattern?
Could a Mediterranean Diet Protect Your Heart?
Results from the Women’s Health Study published in JAMA Network Open show that American women who emphasize veggies and fruits, nuts and fish and downplay meats and sweets get a significant cardiovascular edge (JAMA Network Open, Dec. 7, 2018). The study included nearly 26,000 women over 45 years old. They answered detailed questionnaires about their diets and gave blood to be analyzed for cholesterol and other markers.
Harvard researchers scored the dietary data on a scale from one to nine for adherence to a Mediterranean style eating pattern. The categories included vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish and olive oil, as well as moderate alcohol intake. Over about two decades, women with scores in the upper third were 28 percent less likely than those in the lowest third to suffer complications. These included heart attack, stroke, hospitalization for a coronary or death from cardiovascular causes.
How Would a Mediterranean Diet Protect Your Heart?
Following a more Mediterranean eating plan may not work by lowering cholesterol. Oddly, women following a more Mediterranean pattern had higher total cholesterol overall than those in the lower group. However, their markers for inflammation were lower. They also had lower glucose levels and less insulin resistance. Although this was not a randomized controlled trial, it strongly suggests that American women can help their hearts by following a Mediterranean dietary eating style.
The Many Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet:
Earlier studies already indicated that people who eat more vegetables, fruits, fish and olive reap health benefits. An analysis of 56 studies of the Mediterranean diet found that people following this eating pattern have a lower likelihood of developing diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and breast cancer (Annals of Internal Medicine, online, July 19, 2016). To be included in the research, a study had to have at least 100 participants. Each study lasted at least a year. Volunteers needed to adhere to at least two of the following seven components:
- more monounsaturated fat (usually from olive oil or nuts, with little if any animal fat like butter);
- lots of vegetables and fruits;
- plenty of legumes such as peas, beans and lentils;
- mostly whole grains;
- moderate amounts of red wine;
- limited dairy products;
- and reduced consumption of meat, with fish as a substitute.
Importantly, the diets were not restricted in fat. Many physicians and nutrition experts have thought that avoiding red meat and dairy products would be beneficial primarily because people eat less fat. That was not necessarily true for these study diets.
The research can’t demonstrate cause and effect. But by now the consensus is that even a high-fat Mediterranean diet is good for the heart, the brain and various other organs. People following a Mediterranean pattern lowered their chance of a heart attack or stroke by 29 percent. They were 57 percent less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. The risk of diabetes was 30 percent lower.
Do Try This at Home:
The study authors suggested trying to eat this way at home by using olive oil rather than other fats and focusing on plant foods, especially vegetables, beans and seeds. Mediterranean-style menus from Italy, Spain, France, Turkey and Israel are delicious, so adopting such a plan shouldn’t mean sacrificing flavor. If you would like guidance on following a Mediterranean diet, you will find it in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies.