Mediterranean diet betters exercise to cut heart disease risk by nearly half, latest study
Adults who closely followed the Mediterranean diet were 47 per cent less likely to develop heart disease over a 10-year period compared to similar adults who did not closely follow the diet. The study is to be presented to the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session held in San Diego on 14 March 2015.
The study, conducted by a research team from Harokopio University in Greece, found that among participants of the study, adherence to the Mediterranean diet was more protective than physical activity.
While there is no set Mediterranean diet, it commonly emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, olive oil and even a glass of red wine. Earlier research has shown that following the traditional Mediterranean diet is linked to weight loss, reduced risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure and lower blood cholesterol levels, in addition to reduced risk of heart disease.
First study in general population
The study, conducted in Greece, bolsters evidence about the much-lauded Mediterranean diet from earlier studies reported by Australian Food News pointing to the diet’s health benefits. The researchers said it is the first to track 10-year heart disease risk in a general population. Most previous studies have focused on middle-aged people.
“Our study shows that the Mediterranean diet is a beneficial intervention for all types of people–in both genders, in all age groups, and in both healthy people and those with health conditions,” said Ekavi Georgousopoulou, a Ph.D. candidate at Harokopio University in Athens, Greece. “It also reveals that the Mediterranean diet has direct benefits for heart health, in addition to its indirect benefits in managing diabetes, hypertension and inflammation.”
Mr Georgousopoulou conducted the study along with Dr Demosthenes B. Panagiotakos, Ph.D., Professor at Harokopio University.
The study is based on data from a representative sample of more than 2,500 Greek adults, ages 18 to 89, who provided researchers with their health information each year from 2001 to 2012. Participants also completed in-depth surveys about their medical records, lifestyle and dietary habits at the start of the study, after five years and after 10 years.
Overall, nearly 20 percent of the men and 12 percent of the women who participated in the study developed or died from heart disease, a suite of conditions that includes stroke, coronary heart disease caused by the buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries, acute coronary syndromes such as heart attack, and other diseases. Other studies have shown Greeks and Americans have similar rates of heart disease and its risk factors.
Benefits ‘independent’ of other heart disease risk factors
The researchers scored participants’ diets on a scale from 1 to 55 based on their self-reported frequency and level of intake for 11 food groups. Those who scored in the top-third in terms of adherence to the Mediterranean diet, indicating they closely followed the diet, were 47 percent less likely to develop heart disease over the 10-year follow-up period as compared to participants who scored in the bottom-third, indicating they did not closely follow the diet. Each one-point increase in the dietary score was associated with a 3 percent drop in heart disease risk.
The researchers said this difference was independent of other heart disease risk factors including age, gender, family history, education level, body mass index, smoking habits, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, all of which the researchers adjusted for in their analysis.
The analysis also confirmed results of previous studies indicating that male gender, older age, diabetes and high C-reactive protein levels, a measure of inflammation, are associated with an increased risk for heart disease.
“Because the Mediterranean diet is based on food groups that are quite common or easy to find, people around the world could easily adopt this dietary pattern and help protect themselves against heart disease with very little cost,” Mr Georgousopoulou said.
Women more likely to follow diet closely
Among study participants, the researchers said women tended to follow the Mediterranean diet more closely than did men. Mr Georgousopoulou said that despite the fact that Greece is the cradle of the Mediterranean diet, urbanisation had “led many Greeks to adopt a more Western diet over the past four decades”.
The study was limited to participants living in and around Athens, Greece, so the researchers said the sample does not necessarily reflect the health conditions or dietary patterns of people in more rural areas or the rest of the world. However, previous studies have also linked the Mediterranean diet with reduced cardiovascular risks, including the Nurses’ Health Study, which included nearly 75,000 American nurses who were tracked over a 30-year period. Additional studies in other adult populations would further advance understanding of the diet’s influence on heart disease risk.