Can the Mediterranean diet help prevent disease?

Layne Lieberman, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
The Mediterranean diet can help prevent illnesses including heart disease, diabetes and cancer, because it's based around eating whole, fresh foods. Watch culinary nutritionist Layne Lieberman, RD, explain why this diet is ideal for overall wellness.
The Mediterranean diet has proven very successful at preventing and even reversing diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. It has also been shown to lower risk of cancer and increase life expectancy. It is a plant-based diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, veggies, and fish.  Olive oil is used to cook and season foods.  Red meats and sweets are limited in the diet.
James A. Underberg, MD
Internal Medicine
Recently, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that patients living in Spain who followed a Mediterranean-style diet supplemented with either olive oil or healthy nuts had fewer cardiovascular events (mostly strokes were prevented) compared to those in the standard diet group.
It is important to understand that the "Standard Diet" was a low-fat, higher-carbohydrate (therefore more sugar) diet, which in fact in Spain (a country in the Mediterranean) is not the standard diet. Hence, while the headlines read "Mediterranean Diet Better" perhaps what was shown here is that a low-fat, higher-carbohydrate/sugar diet is worse. The debate between sugar and fat has raged for more than a generation now. Olive oil contains mono and polyunsaturated fats (omega 6 /linoleic acid) and the nuts contain more polyunsaturated omega-3 fats (alpha-linolenic acid). Both Mediterranean diet groups did eat less saturated fat, but still did eat meat and poultry, but more fish. 
What was very interesting is that the low-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet seemed to be harder to follow/adhere to than either of the Mediterranean diets. The investigators did not report on weight gain/loss, and once again we have information on benefits of a dietary intervention not linked to weight. 
This study was done in patients without heart diseae (primary prevention) and is a nice followup to a study done many years ago in France (the Lyon Heart Study) which showed cardiovascular benefits in men with heart disease who were put on a Mediterranean diet supplemented with a canola oil (omega 3 alpha-linolenic acid) spread. 
Bottom line is that a Med-style diet / using either olive oils or oils with omega-3s such as healthy nuts or perhaps canola oil seems to be the better choice when compared to a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. What would be interesting to know is how a low-carbohydrate, high-saturated-fat (such as an Atkins style diet) would compare, and we do not have this information yet in a similar type of study.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.