The Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) is not associated with a high consumption of dairy foods. However, Australian researchers recently found that adding cheese and yogurt to this eating plan provided cardiovascular benefits superior to those produced by a low-fat diet.

This study shows that the new MedDairy works better than a generic low-fat diet, ensuring better health outcomes for people at risk of cardiovascular disease.- Alexandra Wade, co-author of the study

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is responsible for one out of every three deaths in the United States. Approximately 2,300 people in the U.S. die from this illness every day, which is, on average, one death every 38 seconds.

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Low-fat diets are often advised for people who want to reduce their risk of heart disease. Similarly, the MedDiet has shown value in preventing the malady.

Researchers in the new study from the University of South Australia compared a low-fat diet to a MedDiet that was supplemented with three to four servings of dairy foods each day. The findings revealed that the dairy-augmented MedDiet, called a MedDairy diet, led to significantly healthier heart rates, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, cognitive function and mood. Co-author Alexandra Wade concluded that the results challenge the popular recommendation of the low-fat diet for cardiovascular disease prevention.

“The MedDiet is fast earning a reputation as the world’s healthiest diet and is renowned for delivering improved cardiovascular and cognitive health,” she said in a press release. “But it’s also higher in fat, which can be a deterrent for people seeking to adopt a healthier eating plan, especially if they don’t realize the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats.”

“In Australia, low-fat diets are often recommended for improving heart health and they are still perceived as being healthy,” Wade added. “This study shows that the new MedDairy works better than a generic low-fat diet, ensuring better health outcomes for people at risk of cardiovascular disease.”

While the study compared the low-fat diet to the MedDairy diet, it did not compare the MedDiet to the MedDairy diet. Might the addition of dairy foods to the MedDiet enhance its cardiovascular benefits? Olive Oil Times put the question to co-author Karen Murphy.

“I do think that the inclusion of dairy foods in the MedDiet may have provided extra cardiovascular advantages,” she said. “Nonetheless, it’s difficult to tease out the effect of individual foods and nutrients when you are studying dietary patterns. We consume foods together rather than in isolation, and it may be the synergistic effect of the foods that led to the benefits observed in the study.”

“Dairy foods have been reported to have their own positive effects on cardiovascular health such as reducing blood pressure,” she added. “We think it may be due to the inhibition of a certain enzyme conversion, which reduces hormones that are responsible for vascular constriction. The advantage could also stem from the potential ability of dairy foods to regulate vascular resistance and boost vasodilation, which allows blood vessels to relax due to increased nitric oxide synthesis. There are other potential mechanisms which are still being explored.”

What aspects of the MedDiet are responsible for producing more cardiovascular protection than the oft-recommended low-fat diet? Murphy explained that multiple factors underlie its superiority for the heart.

“The MedDiet can be easily adhered to because it’s less restrictive than a low-fat diet,” she said. “It’s also palatable and cheaper than a standard Western diet and is easy to prepare.”

“Moreover, the MedDiet contains a range of foods and nutrients, which independently have been reported to have their own heart health benefits,” Murphy added. “These include monounsaturated fatty acids from nuts and extra virgin olive oil; omega-3 fats from oily fish and walnuts; fiber; polyphenols; whole grains; and legumes. The eating plan involves relatively low consumption of red and processed meats, as well as discretionary foods, which tend to be high in added sugars, salts and unhealthy fats. These points combined are likely to account for why a MedDiet is more heart-friendly than a low-fat diet.”

The study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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