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The lower rate of heart disease in Mediterranean areas has long been attributed to the local diet in that region of Europe. It may also prevent cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. But what makes up the diet and why is it so good for health?

What’s in the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet commonly consumed in southern Europe, typically consists of a high proportion of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish and seafood, nuts, seeds and olive oil but is low in meat and dairy produce.  Red wine is also a common daily ingredient. 

Note that the Mediterranean diet is not a calorie-restricted or faddy weight-loss regime, it is the normal diet of people living in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece.

Cardiovascular benefits of the Mediterranean diet

A study of more than 7,400 Spanish people was published this year and showed clear benefits from eating a Mediterranean diet, in terms of reduced rates of heart attack, stroke and death. The participants were aged 55 to 80 years of age and were considered to have major risk factors for cardiovascular events.  They either had type 2 diabetes (which is linked with heart disease) or at least three risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or family history of early death from heart disease. 

The participants were divided into three groups, two of which ate a Mediterranean diet while the other one ate a standard low-fat diet.  One of the Mediterranean diet groups was supplemented with a liter of extra-virgin olive oil (the oil which comes from the first pressing of the olives) per week and the other with a daily handful (30 grams) of mixed nutsBoth groups consumed more than seven glasses of wine per week and all participants were followed for a period of seven years.

What did the study show?

Both of the Mediterranean diet groups had a 30% reduction in the risk of a major cardiovascular event (heart attack, stroke or death) compared with the low-fat control group.  

Which parts of the diet bring about the benefit?

This way of eating is an example of current advice to make fruit and vegetables the major components of the daily diet, and to reduce saturated fat consumption by only occasionally eating red meat. But which particular aspect is having the greatest benefit is hard to isolate. 

In the case of this study, because it was conducted in Spain, it is possible that some of the participants – in both the trial and control groups – were already eating a Mediterranean diet before the study, which may have influenced the outcome.  As a result the researchers felt it was probably the supplementation with extra olive oil and nuts that produced the benefit.

But the result is not an artificial one as the region of southern Europe where this type of diet is most commonly consumed has long been associated with a lower incidence of heart disease and stroke, compared with northern European and the US. 

Also many other studies have shown an association between reduction in heart events and stroke and consumption of a Mediterranean Diet.
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