San Gennaro Festival Held In New York City
Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images file
Italian food is prepared at the annual Feast of San Gennaro Festival held Sept. 17 in New York City. New studies confirm the health benefits of Mediterranean cooking.
By Special to MSNBC
updated 10/29/2004 6:33:56 AM ET 2004-10-29T10:33:56

Two new studies bring positive attention back to the Mediterranean Diet. One study tracked more than 2,300 healthy elderly men and women from eleven different European countries for ten years. Those people with eating habits that met at least half the criteria of a Mediterranean diet suffered at least 25 percent fewer deaths during that period.

In fact, people who ate a mostly Mediterranean diet, exercised moderately, drank little to moderate amounts of alcohol, and didn’t smoke had 65 percent fewer deaths than those who followed none or only one of these healthy habits. Avoidance of these healthy habits was strongly linked to death from cancer or heart disease.

The other new study involved people with metabolic syndrome, a disorder linked with heart risk. The warning signs for this disorder are waistline obesity, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood triglycerides and insulin resistance. Half of the participants in this study were told to follow a Mediterranean-style diet and the other half a traditional low-fat diet. Both groups were asked to increase their exercise.

In time, the Mediterranean group showed reduced markers for inflammation, which is linked to a risk of heart disease and cancer. Markers for blood vessel health also improved for this group. After two years, less than half of the group on the Mediterranean diet still had metabolic syndrome, while almost everyone on the traditional low-fat diet still had it.

Studies back earlier findings
The associations seen in these two studies between a Mediterranean-style of eating with a lower risk of heart disease repeat the findings of past studies. A recent review of many studies on the Mediterranean diet found that the risk of heart disease can drop from 8 percent to 45 percent if people follow this diet. More surprisingly, a recent study found that those who met most of the criteria for a Mediterranean diet lowered their risk of heart attack by more than 80 percent compared to those who met only one or two criteria.

Find out how dietary advice has changedIn addition to heart disease and cancer, the Mediterranean diet may help control weight as well. In the new study with people afflicted by metabolic syndrome, those on a Mediterranean diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat diet — a total difference of nine pounds in two years. In an earlier study, a group with a Mediterranean-style diet of moderate fat content lost the same amount of weight at first as another group on a low-fat diet, but the Mediterranean group kept the weight off better. In fact, only one-fifth of the low-fat group could stick to their diet.

Not all foods get a green light
Not all so-called Mediterranean foods should form a frequent part of a health-oriented Mediterranean diet, however. Many high-fat dishes and rich desserts, like lasagna and tiramisu, have become even less healthy in America. Originally, these dishes were special occasion treats. And although this diet does feature olive oil as the main source of fat, the large amounts traditionally used were appropriate for extremely active farming people. Olive oil can still be the primary source of fat for us, but it should be used in moderation to suit our lower calorie needs.

Furthermore, alcohol in a Mediterranean diet means one or two glasses of wine daily. For example, in the recent study of older Europeans, the healthy women averaged about three glasses per week.

To create a healthy Mediterranean-style diet for yourself, focus primarily on eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains with daily servings of dried beans, nuts, or seeds. If you eat red meat, consume only small amounts. Serve fish regularly. Olive oil should be your main source of fat, instead of butter or margarine. And instead of high-fat, high-sugar desserts and bakery products, choose fruits, except for special occasions.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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