New Study Delves Into Mechanisms Behind MedDiet's Health Benefits

Researchers found that following the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 25 percent. They also got some clues as to why this may be the case.

Jan. 10, 2019
By Mary West

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In the first ran­dom­ized clin­i­cal trial in the United States on the long-term effects of the Mediter­ranean diet (Med­Diet), researchers iden­ti­fied some of the mech­a­nisms that under­lie the eat­ing plan’s ben­e­fits for heart health.

The most influ­en­tial effects of the diet involved improved inflam­ma­tion, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI).

Our study has a strong pub­lic health mes­sage that mod­est changes in known car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease risk fac­tors con­tribute to the long-term ben­e­fit of a Mediter­ranean diet on car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease risk.- Shafqat Ahmad, lead author and research fel­low at Har­vard

Research on the Med­Diet began in the 1950s, and since that time, evi­dence of its value for car­dio­vas­cu­lar health has accu­mu­lated. In more recent years, stud­ies have shown the eat­ing plan may help pre­vent or alle­vi­ate a wide range of other ail­ments as well.

How­ever, the mech­a­nisms by which it ben­e­fits the heart have been poorly under­stood, so sci­en­tists recently under­took an inves­ti­ga­tion to pin­point these fac­tors.

See more: Olive Oil Health Ben­e­fits

The research pub­lished in JAMA Net­work Open involved an exam­i­na­tion of data on more than 25,000 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Study. At the onset, the par­tic­i­pants com­pleted a detailed food ques­tion­naire on their dietary intake. This infor­ma­tion was used to assign them scores from one to nine based on how much their eat­ing plan resem­bled the Med­Diet.


The indi­vid­u­als were then divided into three groups: those with low-adher­ence scores of between one and three, those with mid­dle-adher­ence scores of four and five, and those with high-adher­ence scores of six and greater.

Car­dio­vas­cu­lar health of the par­tic­i­pants was fol­lowed for 12 years. Indi­vid­u­als in the mid­dle adher­ence cat­e­gory had a 23-per­cent lower risk, while those in the high cat­e­gory had a 28-per­cent lower risk.

To deter­mine the why” behind the how” of the reduced risk, blood pres­sure mea­sure­ments, blood test results and self-reported infor­ma­tion on weight and height were ana­lyzed.

The find­ings showed that improve­ments in inflam­ma­tion, glu­cose metab­o­lism and body mass index accounted for 27.3 to 29 per­cent of the risk decrease. In addi­tion, smaller links were found to health­ier blood pres­sure, lipids and other bio­mark­ers. Notwith­stand­ing these dis­cov­er­ies, some ways in which the Med­Diet ren­ders its heart ben­e­fits remain a mys­tery.

Our study has a strong pub­lic health mes­sage that mod­est changes in known car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease risk fac­tors, par­tic­u­larly those relat­ing to inflam­ma­tion, glu­cose metab­o­lism and insulin resis­tance, con­tribute to the long-term ben­e­fit of a Mediter­ranean diet on car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease risk. This under­stand­ing may have impor­tant down­stream con­se­quences for the pri­mary pre­ven­tion of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease,” lead author Shafqat Ahmad, a research fel­low at the Brigham and at the Har­vard Chan School, said in a press release.

Reg­is­tered nurse Jody Berg­eron of Cape Cod Health­care in Fal­mouth, MA, told Olive Oil Times that char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Med­Diet may have played a role in the results.

It is well known that chronic low grade inflam­ma­tion and oxida­tive stress are asso­ci­ated with car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, can­cer and other chronic con­di­tions,” she said.

The Med­Diet focuses on the fol­low­ing anti-inflam­ma­tory and nutri­ent dense foods: fish, veg­eta­bles, fruits, extra vir­gin olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and seeds,” she added. It has a higher omega‑3 to omega‑6 fatty acid ratio, which leads to decreased inflam­ma­tion. The diet’s high quan­tity of phy­tonu­tri­ents and fiber, along with its low glycemic load and low con­tent of sat­u­rated fat, con­tributes to less inflam­ma­tion in the body.”

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