Your Weekly Checkup: The Proven Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

“Your Weekly Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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In multiple columns I have emphasized the importance of eating a healthy diet. You know the mantra: fish, chicken, nuts, low saturated fats, and so on.

But should you take my word for it, or are there data providing evidence of what is best to eat, particularly if you are at risk for having a heart attack or stroke? Various claims have been made about one special diet or another, but rarely if ever are the claims backed by actual evidence.

Recently, an important study was published that provides scientific verification supporting the ingredients of a healthy diet in a population at risk for developing cardiovascular disease. A group of Spanish investigators studied almost 7500 elderly (55 to 80 years) participants who had type II diabetes or three or more of the following major risk factors: smoking, hypertension, abnormal cholesterol, overweight/obesity, or a family history of premature coronary heart disease.

Participants were randomized to three arms: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts, or a control diet of reduced dietary fat. The Mediterranean diet consisted of at least 2 to 4 weekly servings of olive oil for cooking, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish/seafood, legumes (peas/beans), sauce made of tomato, onion, garlic and olive oil, white meat, and, for habitual drinkers, 7 or more glasses (per week) of wine with meals.

After almost five years, participants eating the Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts or with olive oil each had about a 30 percent reduction in heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular disease compared to those eating the reduced fat diet. Benefits were greater in those who adhered more closely to the Mediterranean diet. These results support a beneficial effect of the Mediterranean diet for primary prevention of heart attacks, strokes, or death from CV disease. I am unaware of any other diet exhibiting such dramatic results.

The Mediterranean diet also benefits frail individuals, defined as those having unintentional weight loss of about 10 pounds in the past year, exhaustion, weakness, slow walking speed, and low physical activity. The frailty phenotype makes one prone to falls, worsening mobility, hospitalization, and death. In one study, frail participants who adhered closest to a Mediterranean diet had a 56% reduced risk of frailty compared to those with the lowest adherence.

The specific nutrients beneficial in the Mediterranean diet are still being unraveled but may relate to foods that exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Whatever “magic” nourishments the Mediterranean diet contains now has scientific credibility to back up the claims.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Mediterranean diet is a part of a way of life in which cooking and eating with family and friends is a fun, relaxing way to socialize and form a sense of community. That sense of belonging might be as beneficial as a grilled salmon!