Well, my last two blogs have been about the benefits of dietary potassium (i.e. fruits & veggies) and whole grains, so I thought I’d put those dietary pieces together here in terms of a whole pattern of eating, and then move on to something completely different.
The Mediterranean diet is one of the most well-researched diets related to human health, with proven benefit for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, arthritis, etc., as well as for cancer prevention, possibly because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components. Indeed, in one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, adherence to the Mediterranean diet combined with other lifestyle behaviors lowered the risk of dying from all causes (as well as from specific causes) by more than 50%.
It’s actually more difficult to find something the Mediterranean diet doesn’t have benefit for than that it does, which is quite remarkable. Because its benefits cut across so many different conditions, this suggests to me that it is really addressing root causes of disease, allowing for widespread health-promoting effects.
So what is new? A few important studies were published in the last few weeks that really emphasize how important this dietary pattern really is.
In the first of these – a meta-analysis of data from 50 trials and roughly 1/2 million people – the Mediterranean diet was found to both lower the prevalence of the metabolic syndrome (Met-S), as well as its progression. (The metabolic syndrome is a highly prevalent condition, defined by a combination of risk factors, such as abnormal lipids (triglycerides, cholesterol), abdominal obesity, and high blood pressure. It is known to increase the risk for some of the leading causes of death in the US, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and affects at least 50 million Americans.)
In this analysis not only was it found to lower the overall prevalence of the Met-S, it also improved its specific components, including waist circumference, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and glucose metabolism. The authors also point out that one of the main causes for all of the metabolic dysfunctions that make up the Met-S is actually abdominal obesity (adipose or fat tissue produces a number of inflammatory compounds), and the Mediterranean diet has direct benefit for trimming those waist-lines.
This brings me to the second study – in a meta-analysis of the Mediterranean diet and weight loss also published this month (which included 16 randomized controlled trials, with 19 arms), it was also found to produce significant weight loss. As might be expected, this effect was larger when combined with physical activity, less calorie intake, and a duration of greater than 6 months.
So the Mediterranean diet reduces inflammation, slows the progression and development of the metabolic syndrome, it lowers the risk of most chronic diseases as well as from dying, and it even improves the waistline – what’s not to like? And it gets better. In the 3rd study published recently in the Annals of Neurology, adherence to the Mediterranean diet was found to lower the burden of cerebrovascular disease – specifically to reduce the number of infarcts (areas of tissue death) in the brain as assessed by MRI. And this was no small effect – those with the greatest adherence had roughly a 40% reduction in infarct risk – almost exactly the same risk reduction associated with having normal blood pressure. In other words, following the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of infarct just as much as not having high blood pressure did.
So what is this diet comprised of? Although slight variations are found, it centers around specific dietary patterns, including fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, (sound familiar yet?) and low-fat dairy products, as well as fish, nuts, legumes, and a low consumption of red meat. It emphasizes monounsaturated fats, particularly olive oil.
The Mayo clinic has a nice description here, including a Med-diet pyramid. I also like to stress to think of this as a way of eating rather than a diet (the latter implies it’s something to try out for a while, and of course eventually drop). I should also mention that in essentially all of the published studies, the more closely it was followed, the greater the benefit.
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