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Low Fat Vs. Mediterranean: Which Diet Could Save Your Life?

February 26, 2013

Olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruit, vegetables, and red wine … not only do these ingredients sound like a recipe for a delicious meal, but as it turns out, they can also save your life.

According to new findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine, about 30% of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in high-risk individuals if they switch to the Mediterranean diet. Although people in Mediterranean countries always seemed to have lower rates of heart disease, it had never been conclusively proven that it was because of their famed diet of olive oil, plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, very little red meat, and lots of red wine.

This new report is meaningful because it used rigorous methods to prove that dietary changes can significantly lower the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The scientists divided almost 7,500 adults with heart disease or diabetes into two groups: one followed the standard low-fat diet, which emphasized low-fat dairy products, grains, fruits, and vegetables. The other was assigned the Mediterranean diet, where participants ate up to 4 tablespoons of olive oil or about an ounce of nuts a day, as well as plenty of fish, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Participants were told to drastically cut down on red meat and were encouraged to drink at least seven glasses of wine a week with meals.

The Mediterranean diet group was also encouraged to avoid prepackaged baked goods and to limit their consumption of dairy, processed meats, and other commercially prepared foods.

After five years, scientists ended the study early, so clear were the results: the Mediterranean diet prevented heart attacks, stroke, and death even in those who did not lose weight and were already taking medication to lower that heart disease risk.

Also extraordinary was that the study clearly proves that low-fat diets are not effective in lowering rates of heart disease. Experts have typically hesitated to encourage those with heart disease to consume lots of olive oil and nuts, as they are high in calories and can contribute to weight gain. Yet low-fat diets have never been shown in any rigorous way to reduce disease, and scientists observed that patients found the diet very difficult to maintain.

“Now comes along this group … that says you can eat a nicely balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and olive oil and lower heart disease by 30 percent. And you can actually enjoy life,” said Dr. Steven E Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Integrative Nutrition visiting teacher Dr. Andrew Weil has long advocated for the Mediterranean diet, with the wise reminder that it’s part of a whole cultural package that includes regular physical exercise and strong social and family bonds – both essential forms of primary food. A Mediterranean meal is healthiest of all when it’s enjoyed around a table with friends and loved ones.

Do you have any experience with either a low fat or the Mediterranean diet? Which one made you feel your best?