There are so many diets around—Zone, South Beach, Atkins, Paleo, Sugar Busters, WeightWatchers—that it is hard to keep track of them all. One diet, however, was recently at the center of a groundbreaking study and was heavily covered by the popular media. This is a diet that you want to know more about. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February of 2013, studied the effects of the Mediterranean diet on the risk of stroke, heart attack and death in individuals already at high risk for heart disease.
The study was done in Spain and randomly assigned 7447 individuals at high risk of cardiovascular disease between the ages of 55-80 to either a low fat diet or a Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, olive oil, nuts and wine and limits red meat and commercial baked goods. Both groups got support from nutritionists.
The researchers found that sticking to the Mediterranean diet reduced risk of stroke, heart attack and death by 30 percent. Furthermore, they discovered that the participants were able to stick to the Mediterranean diet, but those on the low fat diet had a harder time adhering to it. Even with support from a nutritionist, those in the low fat group consumed a lot more red meat, commercial baked goods and soda than the experimental group. This group’s diet became very similar to the typical Western diet.
For many years, epidemiologists have noted that individuals living in Mediterranean countries have lower incidence of heart disease, and diet was thought to be a major player in this, but, until now, a direct link had not been established. The recent study was considered so significant, because it was a randomized clinical trial, the gold standard of scientific experiments, because of its size and because it indicates how vital a role diet plays in disease prevention.
Since those following the Mediterranean diet had a 30 percent lower risk for a stroke, heart attack or death, perhaps we all may be wise to choose this diet over our burgers and fries or chulent and kishka. Perhaps, but critics warn to not jump to conclusions. As the study was done in Spain, many wonder how well this information can be extrapolated for Americans, especially as some speculate that olive oil and wine produced in America may be more processed and contain fewer antioxidants, thereby reducing their health benefits. Furthermore, the study was done on individuals at high risk for heart disease, and researchers are still unsure what exactly this means for those at low risk of heart disease.
Overall, though, the praise for this large study far outweighs the criticism. Health care professionals are excited, because this diet, which seems fairly simple to follow, can have huge benefits for your heart. As Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, said, “What we can say to patients is this very palatable Mediterranean diet looks to be healthiest. I’m going to change my own diet; add some more olive oil, some more nuts.”
By Shoshana Genack, MS RD