The Mediterranean diet – Why do people from the Mediterranean generally live longer than us?

Why do people from the Mediterranean live longer and healthier lives than those of us who live in Northern Europe? Is it the climate? Is it the lifestyle? Maybe it’s that Mediterranean people use alcohol more responsibly and don’t consume quite as much as we do. Well, the simply answer is that it’s all of the above and more besides. If there’s one over-riding factor though, that makes for a longer and healthier lifestyle, it’s their diet, and this is what we, as personal trainers have been banging on about for some time. People following a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil and low in saturated fats have a reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, can protect the skin against sun-related aging, can protect against cancer and now it seems can reduce the risk of heart disease.

The latest results from a Spanish study show that a Mediterranean-type diet, rich in fish, vegetables, fruit and wholegrain cereals, and low in animal products like meat and milk, supplemented with olive oil or nuts can reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke by 30 percent, compared to a low fat diet alone. The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine is part of the on-going Intervention Study, PREDIMED, which was designed to study the effects of the Mediterranean diet on the primary prevention of cardiovascular diseases.

The researchers divided the 7,000 participants with a high risk of cardiovascular disease into three dietary intervention groups: an unrestricted calorie Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts, and a controlled low fat diet. All the participants were followed for a period of almost 5 years and were regularly questioned about their compliance with the diet. Biomarkers of compliance were taken from the groups which supplemented diets with olive oil and nuts: tests were taken to measure urinary hydroxytyrosol levels in the group receiving extra-virgin olive oil, and plasma alpha-linolenic acid levels were taken in the group receiving mixed nuts, as well as weight, height and waist circumference measurements.

The researchers noted the rates of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular-related deaths. The results of the study clearly demonstrated that the two groups following the Mediterranean diet and supplementing this with olive oil and nuts had a 30 percent reduced incidence of major cardiovascular events.

Although the study’s finding are interesting, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time the benefits of a Mediterranean-type diet have been identified. It has long been known that a Mediterranean diet could provide some protection against the incidences of cardiovascular disease. There have been several large observational studies that have clearly identified this. The EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) Study followed over 22,000 individuals over a period of time and found that a higher degree of adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a significant reduction in total mortality.

Antonia Trichopoulou, director of the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for Nutrition, and senior researcher at the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology at the University of Athens’ School of Medicine claimed that the new findings simply confirm what is already accepted by many, and that is that sticking with a Mediterranean-type diet is beneficial:

“This was a good study that presents proof through intervention. It basically provides conclusive evidence and settles the case for the Mediterranean diet once and for all” she said.

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