Study: Mediterranean diet may prevent some heart diseases

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If you like olive oil, nuts and wine, you're in luck. If you like eating fish and legumes at least three times a week, that's even better. Love your veggies? You're on your way. Nutrition researchers have been touting the possible health benefits of eating foods popular in Mediterranean cultures for decades.

Food lovers celebrate how enjoyable these dishes can be, too. The vegetable plate at The National in Athens, Ga., is a state of the art example of how plant-focused cuisine can meet state of the science advice: Carolina Plantation rice with black lentils, fried cauliflower with yogurt and harissa, beets with kumquats and fennel fronds, cabbage and caraway slaw, marinated carrots with fennel, watercress.

Now the first major clinical trial on the Mediterranean diet shows that eating this way can prevent 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease. The results of the University of Barcelona study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, reveal that people at high risk for heart disease because they were overweight, smoked or had diabetes were able to cut their heart attack risk by eating a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables. They even got to drink wine with their meals.

The nearly 7,500 study participants were divided into two groups; consuming either the Mediterranean or a low-fat plan. The low-fat group had a hard time sticking with the diet because it wasn't as palatable as the Mediterranean menu. The five-year study actually ended early because it was evident the low-fat group might be at higher risk for heart disease.

How much of the healthy stuff is enough to make a dietary difference? The Mediterranean daily diet regime included at least 4 tablespoons of olive oil, a quarter cup of nuts, a glass of wine, at least three servings of fruit and at least two servings of vegetables. Weekly, they were to eat fish and legumes (peas, beans and lentils) at least three times a week, choose poultry instead of red meats and to avoid sugary desserts.