The “Mediterranean diet”: just another fad?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

By: Erik Johnson, MD

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There are countless diets that are advertised in popular culture today. We probably all could name a few, such as the "Atkins diet", "Miami Beach diet", juice "fasts", and colon "cleanses." Is the "Mediterranean diet" any different from all these other choices that seem to come and go? It is different for a number of reasons. However, it would be easy to miss it among all the other named diets that we are exposed to in advertising and office conversation.


Most importantly, the Mediterranean diet is not about weight loss. Instead, it is a way of eating that significantly reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, such as stroke and heart attacks. There were two recent articles in the New England Journal of Medicine which highlight the beneficial effects of changing the way we eat. This diet grew out of the simple observation that people in Greece, Italy and Spain who consume higher amounts of olive oil, nuts, fruits, vegetables and wine tend to have low rates of stroke, high blood pressure and heart attack.


The “Mediterranean diet”: just another fad?


In one recent study, patients in Spain who were considered high risk for cardiovascular problems were randomly assigned to a regular low fat diet, a diet high in extra-virgin olive oil (1 liter per week), or 30 grams of mixed nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds) per day. The study period was roughly 5 years. They found that the risk of cardiovascular events was significantly reduced in the patients eating olive oil or nuts, with the risk of stroke decreasing the most. Blood pressure was significantly lower in the patients eating olive oil or nuts, which makes sense because strokes are related to high blood pressure. A second study focused just on eating nuts. Over 100,000 health care workers were followed from the 1980's through 2010. They were asked about how often they ate nuts, and their cause of death was recorded. During almost 30 years of follow up, people who ate more nuts lived longer. The strongest benefit was in people who ate nuts every day, and it reduced risk of dying from cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease.


So why is this beneficial? As in many things in life, there are a lot of variables involved. People who ate nuts also were more likely to exercise, not smoke, and keep their weight down. So changing one thing, like eating nuts or adding olive oil to your diet, is probably not going to make a huge difference by itself. But it is a great start, and often, when we make one healthy choice, it makes it easier to take more healthy steps in the future.

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