Research hails Mediterranean diet, with fats and nuts, but eat your veggies, too

Research hails Mediterranean diet, with fats and nuts, but eat your veggies, too

Photo by Emilio Morenatti

The Mayo Clinic further explains the benefits of the Mediterranean diet with tips and recipes. Visit tinyurl.com/6ayebq

For do’s and don’ts on the Mediterranean diet as well as a sample menu, turn to U.S. News at tinyurl.com/7bj9e37

Collier County Libraries offer more than 15 books on the Mediterranean diet. Visit catalog.collier-lib.org

Find Mediterranean Meals online at mediterraneanmeals.com

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Photo by Emilio Morenatti

It’s a lifestyle, not just a diet. But it’s a recipe for a healthier you.

It’s the Mediterranean diet — which, even drenched in olive oil and studded with nuts, beats a low-fat diet hands-down in preventing strokes and heart attacks in healthy older people at high risk of cardiovascular disease, according to research released this past Monday.

The latest smackdown in the diet wars appears to deal a knockout blow to the notion that high-fat olive oil and tree nuts — walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts — are a no-no for those who want to improve their health. On the contrary, Spanish researchers concluded the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil and nuts “were probably responsible for most of the observed benefits” attained by those in the two study groups on a Mediterranean diet.

The findings, released by the New England Journal of Medicine, also add to mounting evidence contradicting a long-held tenet of dieting to improve health: that all calories are equal.

A Mediterranean diet is rich in fatty fish, fruits, vegetables and fatty acids, and almost entirely devoid of red meat. Although many studies have suggested its benefits, the current trial is the first to meet the “gold standard” of biomedical research, with large numbers of people randomly assigned to distinct groups and followed for several years.

For Mediterranean Meals, a company on Marco Island that sells prepackaged frozen meals based on the Mediterranean diet, it is research that co-owner Melissa Saitta said was a long time coming.

Saitta, who grew up in France, watched her mother and grandmother prepare meals that were rich in “good carbohydrates” such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and whole grains, and packed with vegetables.

“Coupling foods is very important,” emphasized Saitta, a nutritionist. “You can make a feast off one vegetable.”

Mediterranean Meals adheres to a three-to-one ratio of vegetables to rice or pasta.

“It’s living off the land,” she said. “It’s not restrictive at all,” especially for those with Type 2 diabetes. “There is no sugar spike for diabetics.”

The study revealed the superiority of the Mediterranean diet was substantial. Compared with a group of 2,450 people who were urged to follow a low-fat diet, the 4,997 on a Mediterranean diet supplemented either with nuts (2,454 people) or extra-virgin olive oil (2,543 people) were 30 percent less likely to suffer either a heart attack, stroke or death attributed to cardiovascular disease.

Mediterranean dieters were almost 40 percent less likely than low-fat dieters to have a stroke during the follow-up period, which lasted nearly five years. The superiority of the Mediterranean diet was consistent across virtually all subgroups. Only among a small group of people without hypertension did a low-fat diet show better results.

Male participants ranged in age from 55 to 80, women from 60 to 80. All of them either had Type 2 diabetes or satisfied at least three of the following criteria: they were active smokers, were overweight or obese, had a family history of premature heart disease or had hypertension or worrisome cholesterol readings.

The findings “blow the low-fat diet myth out of the water,” said Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen, who was not involved in the research. Nissen, an expert on the effects of drugs and nutrition on cardiovascular risk, called the study “spectacular” and touted the findings as impressive.

Mediterranean dieters were urged to minimize sodas and fats that are in partially solid form and to limit consumption of commercially baked sweets and pastries to no more than three times a week. They also were told they could drink wine in moderation — about seven glasses a week.

Low-fat dieters were told to avoid nuts and vegetable oils of all kinds, to limit store-bought sweets to fewer than one per week and to remove visible fat from all meats. They were encouraged to eat fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and three or fewer servings of bread, potatoes, pasta or rice each day.

None of the dieters had a calorie limit.

Researchers found that the primary difference between the Mediterranean and low-fat dieters was the nuts-and-olive-oil consumption. But they were wary of ruling out the contribution of other elements of the Mediterranean diet to improved cardiovascular health.

“Perhaps there is a synergy among the nutrient-rich foods included in the Mediterranean diet that fosters favorable changes” in the physiological responses, lowering such reactions as inflammation and insulin insensitivity, that give rise to cardiovascular disease, the researchers wrote.

Inflammation, Saitta said, is a common side effect in red meat consumption. She suggested eating a lean cut of red meat only once a week with the remainder being chicken and fish.

And to emphasize why it’s a lifestyle, not just a diet, Saitta said exercise is a necessity. “It all works together more naturally with the body — everything comes from the earth.”

But how can a frozen meal adhere to the standards set for a Mediterranean diet?

“We use herbs and spices to flavor foods and the only sodium is sea salts. Everything is all natural and organic.”

A Mediterranean Meal’s freezer life is one year, according to Saitta, who points out sodium isn’t needed to prolong flavor.

“It’s totally not necessary to add preservatives to any frozen meal.”

They are sold at Costco and Whole Foods in Naples.

There are two area specialty stores that sell olive oils. Naples Olive Oil Company is in the Greentree Plaza on Immokalee Road. The Florida Olive Oil Company is on Fifth Avenue South.

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