Would following a Mediterranean-style diet help reduce risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome in young American professionals?

Investigators from Harvard School of Public Health and Cambridge Health Alliance set out to answer this question. According to the researchers, this is the first study that assessed the effect of a modified Mediterranean style dietary pattern on risk of heart disease in young, active Americans. Most previous studies that addressed this issue were conducted in Mediterranean countries, among older populations, or among those with pre-existing health issues.

For this study, published in the journal “PLOS ONE” on February 4, 2014, the researchers selected 780 U.S. male firefighters from 11 fire departments in the Midwest.

Firefighters in the U.S. are at high risk of cardiovascular disease, which causes as many as 45 percent of deaths in on-duty firefighters, reported a 2011 article in the journal “Cardiology in Review.” Lack of physical fitness, obesity, and high prevalence of other risk factors for cardiovascular disease are cited as reasons for the high incidence.

Rather than changing dietary habits of their subjects, investigators for the recent study calculated adherence to a modified Mediterranean style diet pattern using an adherence scoring system based on foods consumed by the firefighters. The subjects responded to questions regarding their eating habits: choice of cooking oils; consumption of foods made with whole or refined grains; and their frequency of consumption of fried foods, fast foods, seafood, fruits and vegetables, desserts and beverages, and wine or alcohol.

Some of the results were not surprising: Obese firefighters frequently consumed fast foods, take-out foods and sugary beverages. They also scored lower on the modified Mediterranean style diet scoring system than normal weight firefighters.

Firefighters who followed the modified Mediterranean style diet were less prone to be obese, had lower body fat, were physically fit, and did not report any weight gain in the past five years. They also had lower levels of LDL cholesterol and higher levels of HDL cholesterol, suggesting a lower risk to heart disease. Additionally, subjects with the highest scores on the modified Mediterranean style diet questionnaire reduced their risk of metabolic syndrome by 35 percent compared to subjects with the lowest scores.

These are significant findings because metabolic syndrome, determined by a large waistline, elevated fasting blood glucose, high levels of triglycerides, and low levels of HDL cholesterol (or the “good” cholesterol), increases risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus, according to the Joint Scientific Statement on Harmonizing the Metabolic Syndrome in the journal “Circulation.”

The authors suggest that educating young, active Americans on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and encouraging a change in dietary habits could be effective in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and improve overall health of this vital segment of our population.

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