April 11, 2013

Mediterranean Diet PREVENTS Cardiovascular Disease

I recently ditched my vegan diet experiment and returned to the tried-and-true Mediterranean diet. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal makes me glad I did.

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the new study found that the classic Mediterranean diet -- particularly with liberal servings of extra virgin olive oil and nuts – cuts the risk of stroke and other significant cardiovascular issues by 30%.

Earlier studies of this southern European diet have shown its favorable impact on weight  loss and cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol and blood pressure. This new study actually proves that the diet significantly reduces the risk of live-threatening events like stroke. It’s pretty easy to establish “association” in studies; it’s not so easy to establish “cause and effect,” something this large, careful study apparently does.

Participants all shared risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease: diabetes, a smoking habit, high blood pressure or cholesterol, obesity, or family history. Half of them were already taking high blood pressure meds; over 40% were on statins.

Researchers divided the participants into three groups:
  1. Mediterranean dieters who ate at least four tablespoons of olive oil each day,
  2. Mediterranean dieters who ate at least 30 grams of nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazlenuts) a day, and
  3. A control group, which was instructed to follow a low-fat diet.
All participants could eat as much as they wanted, and nobody received any exercise advice.

Here’s what the diets looked like:

Recommended (at least)
  • Olive oil (4 tbsps/day)
  • Tree nuts and peanuts (4 servings/week)
  • Fresh fruits (3 servings/day)
  • Vegetables (2 servings/day)
  • Fish (especially fatty fish), seafood (3 servings/week)
  • Legumes (3 servings/week)
  • Wine with meals, optional (7 glasses/week)
Discouraged (less than)             
  • Commercial bakery goods, sweets (3 servings/week)
  • Spread fats (1 serving/day)
  • Red and processed meats (1 serving/day)

Recommended (at least)
  • Low-fat dairy products (3 servings/day)
  • Bread, potatoes, pasta, rice (3 servings/day)
  • Vegetables (3 servings/day)
  • Lean fish and seafood (3 servings/week)
Discouraged (at most)                                                      
  • Vegetable oils, including olive oil (2 tbsps/day)
  • Commercial bakery goods, sweets (1 serving/week)
  • Nuts and fried snacks (1 serving/week)
  • Red and processed fatty meats (1 serving/week)
  • Fatty fish, seafood canned in oil (1 serving/week)
Said Steven Nissan, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic: “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.

The benefit from the Mediterranean diet was clear. Less clear was the detriment from the low-fat diet, since the control group’s eating habits weren’t monitored as closely. Researchers acknowledged that fat intake changed very little during the survey period for many people in the control group: an observation that low-fat diet advocates were quick to highlight.

Ramón Estruch, professor at the University of Barcelona and the study’s lead author, struck a cautionary note. "In Spain, we are losing the Mediterranean diet," he said. "Remember what you learned at home from your grandmother and grandfather. It is really healthy."

OK, time for lunch: another delicious carry-out from Figs, a local eatery run by Lebanese. Their stuff is classic Mediterranean . . . and always delicious.

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