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How Can You Reduce the Impact of Air Pollution?

People who followed a Mediterranean-style diet were significantly less susceptible to the ravages of air pollution. Should you be eating this way?

Air pollution is harmful to health, with bad effects on the lungs, heart and cardiovascular system. But even if you can’t completely avoid air pollution, you can soften its impact.

Lowering the Impact of Air Pollution with Diet:

Data from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Diet and Health Study show that people who follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern with lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains are less vulnerable to the toll of air pollution. The study included nearly 550,000 individuals with an average age of 62 at the outset (ATS 2018 International Conference, San Diego CA May 21, 2018).

It tracked their health for 17 years, during which time more than 126,000 of them died. The participants reported on their dietary habits and residences. The researchers used that data to calculate dietary antioxidants and exposure to particulates, nitrous oxide and ozone.

How Much Did Diet Help Against Air Pollution?

As exposure to particulates and nitrous oxide increased, so did deaths from cardiovascular disease. But those whose diets resembled the Mediterranean pattern most had only a 2 percent increase, compared to 10 percent for those eating a standard American diet. People who ate more like Americans rather than Mediterraneans were 12 percent more likely to die of heart attacks with each part-per-billion increase in nitrous oxide. Those who followed the Mediterranean model saw only a 4 percent increase in heart attack deaths as nitrous oxide levels rose 1 ppb.

On the other hand, the scientists found no correlation between diet and the effects of ozone. Antioxidants may not help reduce against that form of air pollution.

What About Other Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet?

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, Oct. 4, 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:

  1. more monounsaturated fat (usually from olive oil or nuts, with little if any animal fat like butter);
  2. lots of vegetables and fruits;
  3. plenty of legumes such as peas, beans and lentils;
  4. mostly whole grains;
  5. moderate amounts of red wine;
  6. limited dairy products;
  7. 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 Envelope:

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 suggest 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.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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