Sure, a Mediterranean cruise might not be in your budget—but you'd still be wise to dine like you're touring those international waters. A landmark study published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows that eating a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet can lower one's risk of cardiovascular disease by 30% in just five years.
In the first-ever clinical trial to evaluate the impact of a Mediterranean diet on heart health, researchers in Spain followed 7,447 men and women between the ages of 55 and 80, all of whom were at a high risk of cardiovascular disease. Study participants were randomly assigned to follow one of three diets: A Mediterranean diet supplemented by several tablespoons of unrefined olive oil each day, a Mediterranean diet supplemented by an ounce of mixed nuts (a combination of walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts), or a low-fat diet heavy on items like pasta and dairy.
Participants were advised not to restrict their caloric intake or increase their daily activity levels during the study period. Even though individuals following the Mediterranean diet were consuming more calories and more fat than their peers, researchers actually ended the study early because the results were so clear: Participants on both Mediterranean diets were 30% less likely to develop any cardiovascular problems compared to low-fat eaters. Plus, those eating a hefty dose of olive oil were 33% less likely to suffer a stroke, while those consuming extra nuts had a 46% lower risk of stroke.
While nuts and olive oil both offer plenty of health benefits, experts emphasize that the study's results are likely due to the full spectrum of Mediterranean foods. “The message is not that you need to put these two things on top of everything,” explains Joan Sabaté, MD, chair of the International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition, where the findings were presented. “You need to change the rest of your diet.”
Wanna go Mediterranean? It's an easy—and delicious—change. Here, a few tips:
Go Veg. Make plant-based foods, like fruits, veggies, nuts, and beans, the primary components of your diet. In this study, participants ate fish a few times a week, largely avoided red meat, and got most of their protein from plant-based sources. Even once a week is a good place to start, so considering joining our Meatless Mondays crusade.
Skip sweets. Avoid sugar-laden treats, and steer clear of packaged and processed foods as much as possible. In this latest research, participants were asked to avoid processed items, soda, and desserts. (Sugar can show up in surprising places. Check out our roundup of 10 Sneaky Names For Sugar.)
Sip on wine. Yep, you read that right. Study participants drank moderate quantities of wine (around seven glasses per week) with their repasts, but didn't consume other types of alcohol.
Go full-fat. Dietary fats, once considered a health scourge, are increasingly being celebrated for their potential perks. But stick with nutritious sources of unsaturated fat, like olive oil and nuts, to reap the benefits.