First Clinical Trial On the Subject Affirms Mediterranean Diet Cuts Heart Disease

published Feb 25, 2013
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

The results of a new study published just this morning on The New England Journal of Medicine‘s website found that switching to a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts, beans, fish, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil that can cut up to 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease in high-risk patients.

According to The New York Times, the findings of the study which can be read in full here are based on the first major clinical trial to measure the Mediterranean diet’s effect on heart risks. (This is interesting, considering it seems like we’ve heard this advice for a long time, but this is apparently the first truly rigorous clinical study done on the subject. All the other advice was based mostly on studies showing that people from Mediterranean countries seemed to report fewer cases of heart disease.) The results were so compelling, in fact, that the study ended early, after almost five years, because “it was considered unethical to continue.” (Presumably for the patients who were not eating a Mediterranean diet.)

The study, conducted by Dr. Ramon Estruch, a professor of medicine at the University of Barcelona, and his colleagues, randomly assigned subjects at high risk of heart disease to follow either a low-fat diet or a Mediterranean diet:

One group assigned to a Mediterranean diet was given extra virgin olive oil each week and was instructed to use at least 4 tablespoons a day. The other group got a combination of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts and was instructed to eat about an ounce of them each day. An ounce of walnuts, for example, is about a quarter cup — a generous handful. The mainstays of the diet consisted of at least 3 servings a day of fruits and at least two servings of vegetables. Participants were to eat fish at least three times a week and legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, at least three times a week. They were to eat white meat instead of red, and, for those accustomed to drinking, to have at least 7 glasses of wine a week with meals. They were encouraged to avoid commercially made cookies, cakes and pastries and to limit their consumption of dairy products and processed meats.

Participants on the Mediterranean diet were able to stick with it long-term, which was part of its success. It didn’t feel so much like a diet; in fact, it was enjoyable! (Participants were also encouraged to drink red wine.) Those in the low-fat group didn’t fare as well; investigators reported that without significant support, those participants didn’t lower their fat intake very much, so “the study wound up comparing the usual modern diet, with its regular consumption of red meat, sodas and commercial baked goods, to a diet that shunned all that.”

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(Image: Flickr member DMahendra licensed under Creative Commons)