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Mediterranean Diet Protects Everybody

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A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, and fish prevented cardiovascular death in all populations studied

A study looked at the impact of the increasingly popular Mediterranean diet on heart attack and stroke risks in a diverse group that included women, blacks, and Hispanics. The study found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet—rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, and fish—prevented cardiovascular death in all these populations.

The Mediterranean diet score

The study, known as the Northern Manhattan Study or NOMAS, included more than 2,500 adults, of whom 64% were women, 55% were Hispanic, 24% were black, and 21% were white. Each participant answered a diet questionnaire upon enrolling in the study and was given a score to indicate how closely their diet resembled the Mediterranean diet. These scores were based on adherence to the following dietary characteristics:

  • High in fruits and vegetables
  • High in legumes and cereal grains
  • High in fish
  • Low in meat and dairy products
  • High ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fats (monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil and some nuts, while saturated fats are primarily animal fats)
  • Mild to moderate alcohol consumption

Eating Mediterranean-style is good for everyone

After an average of nine years of monitoring, the following relationships were seen:

  • A high Mediterranean diet score was associated with a low risk of stroke, heart attack, and cardiovascular death.
  • The risk of cardiovascular death in particular was reduced in people with high Mediterranean diet scores: people with the highest scores were 33% less likely to die from cardiovascular causes than people with the lowest scores.
  • Greater consumption of fish and legumes and moderate consumption of alcohol were individually linked to lower risk of cardiovascular death.
  • All ethnicities benefited equally from a Mediterranean diet pattern.

“Higher consumption of a Mediterranean diet was associated with decreased risk of vascular events,” the study’s authors said. “[These] results support the role of a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil in the promotion of ideal cardiovascular health.”

Making the switch

Here are some tips to help you eat more like a Mediterranean native:

  • Include vegetables and fruits at every meal. An average of nine servings of fruits or vegetables per day is typical in the Mediterranean.
  • Switch to whole grains and whole grain products. Whole grain breads are an important part of a Mediterranean diet.
  • Use olive oil instead of butter. In the Mediterranean, bread is more often dipped in olive oil than slathered in butter. Drizzle it on pasta and vegetables, and add some crushed garlic for extra flavor.
  • Choose nuts for a healthy satisfying snack. Nuts are a far better choice than sweets or chips, and can also be added to cereals, pastas, and vegetable dishes to add a tasty crunch.
  • Try hummus instead of cheese. Hummus, a spread made from blended chickpeas, sesame tahini, olive oil, and garlic, is great on crackers and in sandwiches.
  • Get your protein from legumes and fish. Whether in soups, salads, or stews, used in falafel or lentil loaf, or simply spiced and eaten with a whole grain, beans and lentils provide plenty of protein and are fiber-dense.
  • Fish, twice a week. Sardines, mackerel, anchovies, cod, sea bass, and tuna are all popular in the Mediterranean.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2011;94:1458–64)

Maureen Williams, ND, completed her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle and has been in private practice since 1995. With an abiding commitment to access to care, she has worked in free clinics in the US and Canada, and in rural clinics in Guatemala and Honduras where she has studied traditional herbal medicine. She currently lives and practices in Victoria, BC, and lectures and writes extensively for both professional and community audiences on topics including family nutrition, menopause, anxiety and depression, heart disease, cancer, and easing stress. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to TraceGains Newswire.

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