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What’s So Great about the Mediterranean Diet and why is Everyone Talking about it?

April 10, 2013

SONY DSCTV and newspapers bombarded us recently with news about a major study that found that eating a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil and nuts lowers the rate of major cardiovascular events, at least among people at increased risk for heart disease.  Dr. Steven Angelo, Vice President of Medical Affairs at Masonicare, is not surprised about these findings.  He knows only too well that eating this way not only helps individuals who already have heart disease, but those of us who want to avoid serious heart problems down the road.

Here Dr. Angelo discusses the major components of the Mediterranean Diet and encourages us to consider following it and making a lifestyle change that can add years to our lives.  

What is in the Mediterranean Diet?

There is no single definition of a Mediterranean diet, but these diets are typically characterized as being high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds), and seeds; they also include olive oil as the predominant source of fat. Fatty fish and white meats such as lean chicken are favored over red meat. Wine is also encouraged with meals, but in moderation, of course.  Dairy products and eggs are consumed in low to moderate amounts.  Robust physical activity is also a key component of the Mediterranean lifestyle.

What is NOT in the Mediterranean Diet?

What is not in the Mediterranean Diet is almost as important as what is.  Soda and other sugary drinks, baked or fried foods, margarines, sweets/pastries and red or processed meats are rarely, if ever, ingested.

Why is the Mediterranean Diet considered so healthy?

The Mediterranean diet often is touted for its health benefits due to the low saturated fat and high monounsaturated fat content as well as the high dietary fiber. One of the proposed explanations is thought to be the strong protective health effects of olive oil.  Additionally, fresh fruits and vegetables as well as wine contain innumerable antioxidant compounds that can help defend the body against damaging toxins that may lead to cancers and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Some critics, however, have claimed there is no magic potion in the Mediterranean Diet and that most of the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet come from what is not being eaten rather than what is.  There is no doubt that the exclusion or reduction of sugary drinks, baked or fried foods, margarines, sweets/ pastries and red or processed meats may play a major role in why the Mediterranean diet has gained such a spotless reputation for promoting good health. 

When was the Mediterranean Diet first recognized for its possible health benefits?

The Mediterranean Diet was first recognized for its health benefits in 1958 when a landmark study, known as the Seven Countries Study, demonstrated that a group of men from the Greek island of Crete had a significantly lower number of strokes and heart attacks when compared with participants from Western countries.  One of the distinguishing factors between the Cretan study participants and the other study subjects was the Mediterranean Diet.  This was one of the first modern studies that demonstrated a possible link between our health and what we put in our mouths.

What is the best scientific evidence we have gathered on the Mediterranean Diet since the Seven Countries Study?

The strongest research evidence for the Mediterranean Diet has come from studies in the area of weight loss and the prevention of heart attacks and strokes.

In regards to weight loss, a well-publicized 2008 NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE study demonstrated that subjects on a Mediterranean Diet were able to achieve almost the same amount of weight loss as those on a low carbohydrate diet and more weight loss than those following a low fat diet.

The secondary prevention of heart attacks was firmly demonstrated by the Lyon’s Diet Heart Study in 1994 when a group of individuals who had previously suffered heart attacks were randomized to either a Mediterranean Diet or a regular Western diet.  The study had to be stopped after only 27 months when it became readily apparent that significantly more individuals in the control group were having second heart attacks than the experimental group.

Why is everyone talking about the Mediterranean Diet again?

This past February marked the publication of another landmark Mediterranean Diet study in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE.  What made this study different from previous ones (like the Lyon’s Diet Heart Study) was that it focused on the diet’s effects on primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.  In other words, the researchers wanted to know if the Mediterranean Diet could actually prevent strokes or heart attacks from happening in the first place.

Amazingly, this study also had to be stopped prematurely when it was observed that there was a whopping 30% reduction in the number of heart attacks, strokes or deaths caused by one of these conditions in those individuals on a Mediterranean Diet compared to those on a low fat diet.

Are there other diseases that the Mediterranean Diet might protect against?

There have been numerous observational studies that have demonstrated potential protective effects against diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Is the Mediterranean Diet for me?

The well-proven health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet demonstrate that the solution to good health does not always come in a pill.  If you’ve had or have risk factors for having a heart attack or stroke – or if you’re just looking to lose weight in a healthy way – the evidence is clear that following a Mediterranean Diet would be a very beneficial thing for you.

Unfortunately, the downside of trying to tackle this diet is that many of the foods are typically more expensive, such as fish, fresh produce, nuts and extra virgin olive oil, and some of these foods can spoil quickly. The meals also require more preparation time and labor, and with the busy lives we lead, this can be difficult.  But remember – the overall results just might make it all worthwhile. 

 If you’re interested in finding out more, the best place to start is with your primary care physician.  Masonicare knows that choosing the right primary care physician can be a challenge, but it can be one of the most important healthcare decisions you make.  Since 1997, Masonicare Primary Care Physicians, conveniently located on the Masonicare campus in Wallingford, has been providing excellence in internal medicine to adults 18 and over.  Our outstanding physicians, who are board certified in internal medicine and well regarded in the medical community, are committed to preventing illness by promoting wellness.  For additional information or to make an appointment, please call 203-265-0355.