About 20 years ago, I came across a fascinating research article in the prominent medical journal, The Lancet, that highlighted the cardiovascular benefits of a newly described diet. What caught my attention was the very significant improvement in heart outcomes for people who followed this diet.

Let’s go through some of the details. This research was done in France, and enrolled 600 people who had a previous heart attack. The 600 people were divided into two groups, one of which was trained to follow a Mediterranean diet, and the second group was asked to follow a conventional “heart healthy” diet. The patients were monitored for five years and at the end of five years the two groups were compared. 

The Mediterranean diet group was considered as the experimental group and the heart healthy diet group was the control group. At the end of the study period, it was found that there were 16 cardiac deaths in the control group and three in the experimental group. In addition, there were 17 subsequent heart attacks in the control group and five in the experimental group. As you can see from these statistics, there was very significant improvement in cardiac outcomes in the Mediterranean diet cohort. The magnitude of the benefit of the Mediterranean diet was to such a degree it exceeded the benefit of certain medications used to treat heart disease.

What caught my attention was after the publication of this study, there was very little publicity in lay newspapers and magazines about such dramatic findings. I was so intrigued by the beneficial results of this study that I reached out via email to the lead author, Dr. Michel de Lorgeril from France, inquiring as to the details of this Mediterranean diet. He graciously responded and provided me with some information about the Mediterranean diet.

Fast forward to 2017 and many of us have heard about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. It has been described in some circles as an anti-inflammation diet. This is important because according to our current understanding, inflammation contributes to many chronic health conditions, including coronary heart disease, arthritis, colitis and other conditions. The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. For these reasons many health care organizations have recommended adoption of the Mediterranean diet in order to prevent many major chronic diseases.

You may be wondering at this time what the Mediterranean diet consists of. The emphasis is on eating primarily plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, legumes and nuts. For example, residents of Greece are said to consume about nine servings a day of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables.

There is also an emphasis on eating healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil to replace butter and margarine. Olive oil provides monounsaturated fat, which is a type of fat that can help to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. In addition, eating nuts, like almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts also provides beneficial fats. Using olive oil and vinegar as a salad dressing is a healthy choice, as well. Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor our foods is also recommended. Red meat should be limited to only a few times a month. Fish and chicken can be eaten about twice a week. Drinking red wine in moderation is also common in European countries where the Mediterranean diet is followed. And last but not least, getting plenty of exercise helps to promote the heart healthy features of the diet.

Dr. Mark Roth is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.

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