Science and the Mediterranean Diet

I know I am supposed to be going through my ever-growing collection of faith-based diets but an article on the New York Times website caught my eye this week and I couldn’t resist taking a break from the books to share it. The article, “Mediterranean Diet Shown to Ward Off Heart Attack and Stroke,” written by Gina Kolata was published on February 25, 2013. Kolata explained that a new study published on the New England Journal of Medicine’s website was “the first major clinical trial to measure the diet’s effect on heart risks” (1).  Almost all of the books I have covered so far have promoted a variation on the Mediterranean diet for both health and religious reasons. The religious reasons were clear from the books and the authors provided biblical evidence to support the idea that the Mediterranean diet is the right diet for religious people. This study helps to support the additional claims many of the authors made about the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits.

The study posted on the New England Journal of Medicine website is titled “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.” The study noted that the “traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high intake of olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetable, and cereals; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets; and wine in moderation, consumed with meals.” For the purposes of the study, a random trial was set up with 7,447 participants in Spain who were at high-risk for a cardiovascular event. During the study a third of the participants followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, another third followed a Mediterranean diet supplements with nuts and the remaining participants followed a control diet of low-fat foods. Participants were not given a calorie restriction and physical activity was not promoted. After five years, the researchers determined that those who followed either of the Mediterranean diets (supplements with nuts or extra-virgin olive oil) reduced their relative risk of cardiovascular events by 30%. The study concluded “The results support the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

In the New York Times article, Kolata noted that the participants tasked with following the Mediterranean diets stayed on them, but that those who were supposed to follow a low-fat diet “ did not lower their fat intake very much” (2). So, in the end the study compared the standard modern diet of “red meat, sodas and commercial baked goods” (2) with the Mediterranean diet that prohibited all such foods. The results of the study are only relevant for those at high-risk for heart disease and according to the article some proponents of other diets to reduce heart disease risk have already dismissed the study. Meanwhile others have hailed it and Kolata concluded by pointing out that many of the researchers on the study are now following the Mediterranean diet. For those interested, the New York Times website also has a quiz so you can find out if you follow a Mediterranean diet.

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