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Food

Mediterranean Diet Health Benefits Featured in the New York Times

NEW YORK – The Mediterranean diet once again topped the list as the best overall diet in U.S. News & World Report, while the New York Times explored the diet’s health benefits in an article on January 6.

The Times cited the “Seven Countries Study” which began in the 1950s with researchers who “scrutinized the diets and lifestyles of thousands of middle-aged men living in the United States, Europe and Japan and then examined how those characteristics affected their risks of developing cardiovascular disease.”

The study “famously found associations between saturated fats, cholesterol levels and coronary heart disease,” the Times reported, adding that “the researchers also reported another notable result: Those who lived in and around the Mediterranean — in countries like Italy, Greece and Croatia — had lower rates of cardiovascular disease than participants who lived elsewhere.”

“Their diets, rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean proteins and healthy fats, seemed to have a protective effect,” the Times reported, noting that “since then, the Mediterranean diet has become the bedrock of heart-healthy eating, with well-studied health benefits including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

“It’s one of a small number of diets that has research to back it up,” Dr. Sean Heffron, a preventive cardiologist at NYU Langone Health, told the Times. “It isn’t a diet that was cooked up in the mind of some person to generate money. It’s something that was developed over time, by millions of people, because it actually tastes good. And it just happens to be healthy.”

The Times also included “some of the most searched questions about the Mediterranean diet, answered by experts,” such as “What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?”

Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian who specializes in preventive cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told the Times that “the Mediterranean diet isn’t as much a strict meal plan as it is a lifestyle.”

Greek olives are a staple of the healthy Greek diet. (Photo by Elias Lefas)
FILE – Greek olives are a staple of the healthy Greek diet. (Photo by Elias Lefas)

Dr. Heffron added that those on the Mediterranean diet “tend to ‘eat foods their grandparents would recognize,’” [such as] “whole, unprocessed foods with few or no additives,” the Times reported, noting that “the diet prioritizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs, spices and olive oil.”

“Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines and tuna, are the preferred animal protein source,” the Times reported, adding that “other lean animal proteins, like chicken or turkey, are eaten to a lesser extent. And foods high in saturated fats, like red meat and butter, are eaten rarely.”

“Eggs and dairy products like yogurt and cheese can also be part of the Mediterranean diet, but in moderation,” the Times reported, noting that “moderate alcohol consumption, like a glass of wine at dinner, is allowed.”

“Breakfast might be smashed avocado on whole-grain toast with a side of fresh fruit and a low-fat Greek yogurt, Dr. Heffron said,” the Times reported, adding that “for lunch or dinner, a vegetable and grain dish cooked with olive oil and seasoned with herbs — roasted root vegetables, leafy greens, a side of hummus and small portions of pasta or whole grain bread, with a lean protein like grilled fish.”

“It’s very easy to follow, very sustainable, very realistic,” Zumpano told the Times.

Of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the Times reported that “a number of rigorous studies have found that the Mediterranean diet contributes to better health, and in particular better heart health, in a variety of ways.”

“In one study, published in 2018, researchers assessed nearly 26,000 women and found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely for up to 12 years had about a 25 percent reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” the Times reported, pointing out that “this was mainly because of changes in blood sugar, inflammation and body mass index, the researchers reported… Other studies, in men and women, have reached similar conclusions.”

“Research has also found that the diet can protect against oxidative stress, which can cause DNA damage that contributes to chronic conditions like neurological disease and cancer,” the Times reported, adding that “some studies suggest it can help reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.”

Dr. Anum Sohail Minhas, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told the Times that “the diet may also have profound health benefits during pregnancy.”

“In a recent study of nearly 7,800 women published in December, researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely around the time they conceived and during early pregnancy had about a 21 percent reduced risk of any pregnancy complications, such as pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes or preterm birth,” the Times reported.

“There definitely seems to be a protective effect,” Dr. Minhas told the Times.

“On its own, though, the Mediterranean diet isn’t a panacea, Dr. Heffron said — it won’t eliminate your chances of developing cardiovascular disease, and it won’t cure a disease, either,” the Times reported, noting that “it’s important that people also pay attention to other tenets of good heart health, like getting regular exercise and adequate sleep and not smoking.”

For those interested in weight loss, Zumapno told the Times that “the diet can be conducive to weight loss… but you’ll still need to pay attention to calories.”

“Nutrient-rich foods aren’t necessarily low in calories,” Dr. Heffron told the Times, noting “that the diet includes foods like olive oil and nuts, which are heart-healthy yet high in calories and can lead to weight gain if consumed in large portions.”

“But if you’re changing your diet from one that is rich in calories, saturated fats and added sugars, for instance, with one that prioritizes vegetables, fruits and leaner proteins, that can result in some weight loss,” he told the Times.

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