Can the Mediterranean diet help keep heart disease, dementia and cancer at bay?

For some time, researchers have suggested that the Mediterranean diet—rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and fish—may help reduce the risk of heart disease and increase life expectancy. A growing body of scientific evidence now supports this notion. Recent studies have linked reductions in cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancers to the Mediterranean diet. Medical news today looked at the evidence and spoke to experts about the science behind this diet’s benefits.

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Several recent studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet can help keep several diseases and chronic conditions at bay. Photo credit: Cameron Whitman/Stocksy.

Over the years, many diets have been proposed to maintain health or reduce the risk of certain diseases, but few have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

One exception, however, seems to be the Mediterranean diet.

More and more studies are showing significant health benefits for people who follow this eating plan. Studies have shown not only that it reduces cardiovascular disease, but it can also benefit cognition, reduce the risk of diabetes, reduce the risk of some cancers, and relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Mediterranean diet is an umbrella term that refers to a diet based on the historical eating habits of people living around the Mediterranean.

By American Heart Associationwhich recommends this type of diet for cardiovascular health, its key features are:

  • plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes
  • low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts
  • limited added sugars, sugary drinks, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats.

The Harvard School of Public Health adds to these recommendations, emphasizing the importance of healthy fats – olive oil, avocado, nuts and fatty fish.

It advises that people should eat red meat only occasionally, but get their protein from fish or seafood at least twice a week and eat small amounts of poultry, eggs and dairy products on most days.

Although water should be a person’s main drink, people can also drink one or two small glasses of red wine every day according to the traditional Mediterranean diet.

However, the researchers add that a healthy diet should also be combined with some kind of enjoyable physical activity every day.

Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Geriatric Cognitive Health Unit at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, noted:

“The study supports the benefits of adopting a healthy lifestyle and shows how important this can be in shaping future individual and collective health. […] Start by adding lots of fresh vegetables—especially green leafy vegetables—and then enjoy fresh fruits—like berries—and other antioxidant-rich foods, as well as fish, olive oil, and other foods rich in brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.”

Mediterranean diets have long been associated with cardiovascular health. In the mid-20th century, the Seven Countries Study showed that dietary patterns in the Mediterranean region and Japan in the 1960s were associated with low rates of coronary heart disease and all-cause mortality.

Since then, studies have shown that this type of diet not only benefits cardiovascular health, but also reduces the risk of many other health conditions.

And recently, evidence has mounted for the wide-ranging health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet. But what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy?

“The Mediterranean diet is characterized by plenty of fruit and vegetables, plenty of fibre, lots of ‘good fats’, a moderate intake of fish and meat, low amounts of highly processed foods and sugary treats,” said Visiting Doctor Eamon Laird. research fellow at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

“These dietary components provide plenty of fiber, good fats, antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins and minerals – choline, vitamin C, potassium, B vitamins, vitamin D from fish, etc. – [and] proteins that provide health benefits to multiple organ and tissue systems,” he explained.

Many studies have investigated the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk.

A meta-analysis of several studies published in March 2023 with more than 700,000 female participants has shown that by strictly following a Mediterranean diet, women reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 24% and their risk of death. for any reason 23 percent.

According to Dr. Laird, “[w]Omen are also much more likely to stick to their diet than men, which may explain why we see more health benefits in women.”

The meta-analysis seems to confirm the results of previous studies. For example in 2015 another meta-analysis had found that the Mediterranean diet could be an important factor in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.

And it was the whole diet, not any particular part, that seemed to have this effect, said Dr. Joanna Hodges, an assistant professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. MNT.

“[The study] concludes that no specific part of the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be as beneficial as the whole diet [in CVD prevention]”, he told us.

There is also growing evidence that diet can improve cognitive function. A a study published in March 2023, which used data from the UK Biobank, has just reported that individuals with a higher Mediterranean diet had up to a 23 percent lower risk of developing dementia compared to those with a less Mediterranean diet.

A study using data from more than 60,000 people found that a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of dementia even in those with a genetic predisposition to dementia.

The authors conclude that a diet rich in healthy plant-based foods may be a strategy to reduce the risk of dementia.

Another study, also published in March 2023, looking at post-mortem Alzheimer’s pathology, found that those who had followed a Mediterranean or MIND diet, particularly one high in leafy greens, had a much lower beta-amyloid burden.

Beta-amyloid it is believed to be responsible for many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

The diet may also benefit people with multiple sclerosis (MS). A preliminary study presented at the 75th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April 2023 found that people with MS who followed a Mediterranean diet had a 20% lower risk of cognitive decline than those who followed it least.

Diet has been found to both reduce the risk of some cancers and improve the effectiveness of some cancer treatments.

2019 review found that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with lower rates of several cancers, including breast, colon, and prostate cancers.

This study concluded that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the dietary components “prevent and inhibit DNA damage and slow the development of various cancers.”

Regarding prostate cancer, recent studies have shown that a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables and reduces the risk of developing prostate cancer and speed up recovery in those receiving radiation therapy for the disease.

Studies in South Australia found diets high in lycopene and selenium reduced the risk.

Tomatoes, melons, papayas, grapes, peaches, watermelons and cranberries are rich in lycopene, and white meat, fish, shellfish, eggs and nuts contain high levels of selenium. All of these are recommended for the Mediterranean diet.

And not only the treatment of prostate cancer patients can be more effective with the Mediterranean diet.

A recent study presented at UEG Week 2022 found that diet was associated with a significantly improved response to immunotherapy drugs in people with advanced melanoma.

Although the exact mechanism by which the Mediterranean diet benefits health is unclear, there is growing evidence that the diet may have five main effects:

  • lipid lowering
  • protects against oxidative stress, inflammation and platelet aggregation
  • modification of hormones and growth factors involved in cancer pathogenesis
  • restricts certain amino acids
  • influences the gut microbiome to produce metabolites that benefit metabolic health.

Dr. Laird explained MNT how some parts of the diet benefit health:

“Omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols, resveratrolvitamins and polyphenols can help reduce inflammation (CRP, inflammatory cytokines), and may improve endothelium function. By reducing inflammation levels, improving circulation, improving insulin sensitivity, and improving fat metabolism, you also reduce some major risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, cancers, and diabetes by default.

Studies have shown that it is best to take these nutrients in their natural form as part of a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

Although they can be obtained through supplements, taking excessive amounts can cause side effects.

The Mediterranean diet is just one of many diets that have health benefits. Others include the MIND, Nordic and DASH diets.

“The common thread in everything [healthy] diet has a strong effect of plant foods that we see […] it has numerous benefits in terms of increasing dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals,” said Kate Cohen, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Ellison Clinic of Saint John’s, part of the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine and Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. .

So the key to any healthy diet is to include plenty of vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. Most importantly, any dietary changes made must be long-term and sustainable in order to provide health benefits.

“In the long run [the Mediterranean diet] it can be difficult to follow it in its true form, especially for those who are used to processed foods. A good approach would be to slowly integrate components into your current diet and build slowly – again variety is the spice of life and we should have a diverse and varied diet and not rely on just one diet to meet all our needs and requirements. it tastes good – you have to enjoy the food too!”

– Dr Eamon Laird

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