Researchers at Harvard and the University of Athens (Greece) report that the following specific components of the Mediterranean diet are associated with lower rates of death:
- moderate ethanol (alcohol) consumption
- low meat and meat product intake
- high vegetable consumption
- high fruit and nut consumption
- high ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated fat
- high legume intake
Minimal, if any, contribution to mortality was noted with high cereal, low dairy, or high fish and seafood consumption.
The researchers examined diet and mortality data from over 23,000 adult participants in the Greek portion of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and nutrition. You’ll be hearing more about the EPIC study for many years. Over an average follow-up of 8.5 years, 1,075 of participants died. 652 of these deaths were of participants in the lower half of Mediterranean diet adherence; 423 were in the upper half.
Alcohol intake in Greece is usually in the form of wine at mealtimes.
The beneficial “high ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated fat” stems from high consumption of olive oil and low intake of meat.
It’s not clear if these findings apply to other nationalities or ethnic groups. Other research papers have documented the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet in at least eight other countries over three continents.
The researchers don’t reveal in this report the specific causes of death. I expect those data, along with numbers on diabetes, stroke, and dementia, to be published in future articles, if not published already. Prior Mediterranean diet studies indicate lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Steve Parker, M.D.
Reference: Trichopoulou, Antonia, et al. Anatomy of health effects of the Mediterranean diet: Greek EPIC prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal, 338 (2009): b2337. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b2337.
Additional Information: Childs, Dan. Take it or leave it? The truth about 8 mediterranean diet staples. ABC News online, June 24, 2009. Accessed June 25, 2009.
Here’s a direct quote from the study at hand:
Among the presumed beneficial components of the Mediterranean diet score, high consumption of all but fish and seafood was inversely associated with mortality, although none of these associations was statistically significant.
“. . . none of these associations was statistically significant.” So I can understand some skepticism about this journal article. The researchers had to use some very sophisticated statistical manipulation to come up with the “healthy components” list. I’m not saying that’s wrong. I will admit that the statistical analysis is beyond my comprehension, so I’m trusting the authors and peer-review process to be honest and effective. My college statistics course was too many years ago.
The take-home point for me is that the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet probably stem from an overall combination of multiple foods rather than any single component.
And remember to exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight (BMI 18.5-25), keep your blood pressure under 140/90, and don’t smoke.