A remarkable new study published online in the New England Journal of Medicine on Monday confirms that a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts and wine can cut the risk of heart attack and stroke by 30 percent.
“A Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events,” said lead researcher, Dr. Ramon Estruch, of the Carlos III Health Institute in Barcelona.
While previous studies have also demonstrated that people who eat a Mediterranean diet are less likely to die of heart disease, this new study is the first to randomly assign people to follow such a diet over several years as part of their normal routine and then track the results.
The study was conducted in Spain, where people typically eat a Mediterranean diet that includes plenty of salad, fruit, vegetables and nuts, as well as some fish, lean meat, cheese, olive oil and wine served at every meal. More than 7,000 men and women participated in the study, each of whom were randomly assigned to follow either a low-fat diet or one of two variations of the Mediterranean diet: 1) one with more than a quarter cup of extra-virgin olive oil a day; and 2) the other with more than an ounce of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts a day.
All of the study’s participants were between the ages of 55 and 80 when they started their assigned diet – and all were at high risk of heart disease or stroke due to a family history of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or because they were overweight or smokers.
After nearly five years, 58 people who just followed a low-fat diet had strokes, but just 32 people who followed a Mediterranean diet with nuts had them. Of those following the Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil, only 49 had strokes. Both groups on the Mediterranean diet also reduced their risk of heart attack.
Meanwhile, in the control group, 30 people died from heart disease, compared to 31 who ate the Mediterranean diet with nuts, and 26 who at the Mediterranean diet with olive oil.
Compared to those in the control group, however, those who followed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to die overall after five years. After calculating all the results, the study’s researchers found that Mediterranean diets cut the risk of heart disease death, heart attacks and strokes by 30 percent.
Mediterranean cuisine has long been known to have health benefits for its use of olive oil and nuts, which contain monounsaturated fats that are better for arteries than the saturated fats in butter, meat and lard. The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, is also high in fiber, minerals and vitamins like A, C and E. Other staples of the diet include walnuts and fish, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and food for the heart.