Can a Mediterranean diet help keep heart disease, dementia, and cancer at bay?
For some time, researchers have suggested that a Mediterranean diet—rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and fish—may help reduce the risk of heart disease and increase longevity. A growing body of scientific evidence now supports this notion. Recent studies have linked reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer to Mediterranean diets. Medical News Today looked at the evidence and spoke to experts about the science behind this diet’s benefits.
Share on Pinterest Some recent studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet may help keep certain diseases and chronic conditions at bay. Image credit: Cameron Whitman/Stocksy.
Over the years, many diets have been proposed to maintain health or reduce the risk of specific diseases, but few have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.
An exception, however, appears to be the Mediterranean diet.
More and more, studies are showing that there are significant health benefits for people who follow this eating plan. Studies have not only shown that it reduces cardiovascular disease, but it can also benefit cognition, lower the risk of diabetes, reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, and ease the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
The Mediterranean diet is an umbrella term that refers to diets based on the historical eating habits of people living around the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the American Heart Association, which recommends this type of diet for cardiovascular health, its main characteristics are:
high intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, non-tropical vegetable oils and limited added sugars, sugary drinks, sodium, highly processed foods, complex carbohydrates refined, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats.
The Harvard School of Public Health adds to these recommendations, stressing the importance of healthy fats – olive oil, avocados, nuts and oily fish.
He 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 most days.
Although water should be a person’s main drink, people can also drink a small glass or two of red wine each day, according to the traditional Mediterranean diet.
The researchers add, however, that a healthy diet should also be accompanied by some form of enjoyable physical activity every day.
Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, noted:
“Research supports the benefits of adopting healthy lifestyle habits and shows the critical importance this can play in shaping our future individual and collective health. […] Start by including plenty of fresh vegetables — especially green leafy vegetables — and then enjoy fresh fruit — like berries — and other antioxidant-rich foods, along with fish, olive oil, and other omega-3 rich foods. 3 healthy for the brain.
Mediterranean diets have long been associated with cardiovascular health benefits. In the mid-20th century, the Seven Countries Study showed that dietary patterns in the Mediterranean and in Japan in the 1960s were associated with lower rates of coronary heart disease and all-cause mortality.
Since then, research has 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 been mounting for the far-reaching health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet. But what exactly makes Mediterranean diets so healthy?
“The Mediterranean diet is characterized by high fruits and vegetables, high fiber, high levels of ‘good fats’, moderate consumption of fish and meat, low amounts of highly processed foods and sugary foods,” it noted. apparently Dr. Eamon Laird, a visitor. research associate at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.
“These food ingredients provide high amounts 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 in a large number of organ systems and tissues,” he explained.
Much research has investigated the effect of a Mediterranean diet on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk.
A meta-analysis of several studies published in March 2023, with a pooled sample of more than 700,000 female participants, found that by closely adhering to a Mediterranean diet, women reduced their risk of CVD by 24% and risk of death. from any cause by 23%.
According to Dr. Laird, “[w]Oguri is also much more likely to stick to a diet compared to men, which may explain why we see more health benefits in women.”
The meta-analysis appears to confirm the findings of previous research. For example, in 2015, another meta-analysis found that the Mediterranean diet may be a major factor in preventing cardiovascular disease.
And it was the whole diet, rather than any particular aspect, that seemed to have this effect, as Dr. Joanna Hodges, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
“[The study] concludes that no specific component of the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be as beneficial as the whole diet. [in CVD prevention]”, she told us.
There is also growing evidence that diet can improve cognitive function. A study published in March 2023, which used UK Biobank data, has just reported that individuals with a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet had up to a 23% lower risk of dementia compared to those who had lower adherence to a Mediterranean diet.
The study, which used data from more than 60,000 people, concluded that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of dementia even in those with a genetic predisposition to dementia.
The authors conclude that adopting a diet rich in healthy plant-based foods may be a strategy for reducing the risk of dementia.
Another study, also published in March 2023, which looked at Alzheimer’s pathology after death, found that those who had followed a Mediterranean or MIND diet, particularly one rich in greens, had a much lower beta-amyloid load.
Beta-amyloid is believed to be responsible for many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The diet may also be helpful for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). A preliminary study to be 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 impairment than those who followed it less.
The diet has been found to lower the risk of some types of cancer and improve the effectiveness of some cancer treatments.
A 2019 review found that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower rate of several types of cancer, including breast, colorectal and prostate cancer.
This study concluded that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of dietary components “prevent and counteract DNA damage and slow the development of various forms of cancer.”
For prostate cancer, recent research has shown that eating a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of developing prostate cancer and speeds recovery in those undergoing radiation therapy for the disease.
The study, from South Australia, found that diets rich 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 concentrations of selenium. All of these are recommended in the Mediterranean diet.
And it’s not just prostate cancer patients whose treatment may be more effective on a Mediterranean diet.
A recent study presented at UEG Week 2022 found that diet was significantly associated with an 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:
lowering lipids by protecting against oxidative stress, inflammation and platelet aggregation by modifying hormones and growth factors involved in cancer pathogenesis, by limiting specific amino acids that influence the gut microbiome to produce metabolites that benefit metabolic health.
Dr. Laird explained to MNT how several components of the diet are beneficial to health:
“Omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols, resveratrol, vitamins and polyphenols may contribute to lower levels of inflammation (CRP, inflammatory cytokines) and may improve endothelial function. By lowering inflammation levels, improving blood flow, improving insulin sensitivity and improving lipid metabolism, by default you are also reducing some of the major risk factors for CVD, cognitive decline, cancer and diabetes.
Studies have found that it is best to get these nutrients in their natural form as part of a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.
Although they can be obtained through supplements, there can be side effects for taking excessive amounts.
The Mediterranean diet is just one of many diets that have health benefits. Others include the MIND, Nordic and DASH diets.
“The common thread throughout [healthy] diets are a major influence of plant foods, which we see […] has multiple benefits in increasing dietary fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals,” said Kate Cohen, a registered dietitian at the Ellison Clinic in 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 to provide health benefits.
“Long term [the Mediterranean diet] it can be difficult to follow in its true form, especially for those who are used to processed food diets. A good approach would be to slowly integrate the ingredients into your current diet and build up slowly – again variety is the spice of life and we should have a varied and varied diet and not just rely on one diet pattern to meet all our needs and demands and tastes—even food must be enjoyed!”
– Dr. Eamon Laird