Now, they have proof.
The first major clinical trial on the Mediterranean diet shows that eating this way can prevent 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease. The results of the University of Barcelona study, published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine, reveal that people at high risk for heart disease because they were overweight, smoked or had diabetes were able to cut their heart attack risk by eating a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables. They even got to drink wine with their meals.
“I’m not surprised by the results of the study at all,” said Dr. Barry Bertolet, an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff of North Mississippi Medical Center's Heart Institute. “A lot of other smaller studies pointed in this direction. It just makes a lot of sense.”
Bertolet was so sure of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, in fact, that he and a team of other cardiologists came up with the idea to implement the diet at the hospital, serving it to heart patients at every meal.
“That was in 2009,” he said. “When I heard about the study last week, I made a smart comment to my wife, saying, ‘I’m glad they finally caught up with Tupelo.’”
The nearly 7,500 study participants were divided into two groups, consuming either the Mediterranean or a low-fat plan. The five-year study actually ended early because it was evident the low-fat group might be at higher risk for heart disease.
The Mediterranean daily diet regime included at least four tablespoons of olive oil, a quarter cup of nuts, a glass of wine, at least three servings of fruit and at least two servings of vegetables. Weekly, they were to eat fish and legumes (peas, beans and lentils) at least three times a week, choose poultry instead of red meats and avoid sugary desserts.
“The meals we serve our patients are a little different,” Bertolet said. “Of course, we don’t serve wine. We’re still using the menu for heart patients and now it’s spread to involve diabetics, and a good number of the general medicine patients are using it. It’s involving a broader number of people.”
Bertolet said what he likes about the Mediterranean style of eating is that it doesn’t involve specialty foods – you can just go to the grocery store and make a few good choices.
He suggests yogurt, whole-grain cereal and fruit for breakfast, a nice big salad at lunch and a lean meat or fish for supper with lots of vegetables.
“At the hospital, we do provide meat at one meal each day, but there are other sources of protein where you don’t have to have meat every day,” he said. “When people design a meal, they start with the meat. We need to move away from meat being our centerpiece.”
Bertolet pointed to another study released last week that found an association between eating meat and premature death, this time linking the consumption of bacon, sausage and other processed meats with cardiovascular disease and cancer in a study of nearly a half-million Europeans.
The research, which followed people in 10 European countries in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition over one to two decades, was published Thursday in Biomed Central’s open-access journal BMC Medicine.
Sabine Rohrmann of the University of Zurich, who led the study, estimated that 3 percent of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 grams of processed meat per day. Twenty grams is about 0.7 ounces; a hot dog comes in at 50 to 70 grams or more, depending on the brand, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.
“The bottom line is the more processed meat you eat, the shorter your life,” Bertolet said. “Our meat and three culture has gotten us into trouble.”
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services contributed to this report.