Okay, so the “all-chocolate, all-the-time diet,” my personal preference, may not be the best for your health. At the top of the list of diets that are good for you (and that pass the taste test with top marks) is the Mediterranean diet – you eat as if you were living in Italy, Greece or Spain: lots of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables, crusty whole grain bread, nuts, legumes, fish and seafood. It relies on olive oil as the main source of fat.
The Mediterranean diet may help trim a person’s risk for heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In one study, it cut the risk of heart disease by 50 to 70 percent among heart attack survivors. And now we know why it works so well: researchers in Spain recently announced that eating the Mediterranean way, with virgin olive oil, actually changes the expression of genes that otherwise promote heart disease.
The new findings open up a “whole new window into what diet does. By modifying diet with one that we know is good, we can modify biologic processes, specifically inflammation, and genes regulating them,” says cardiologist Christopher P. Cannon, M.D. associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of The New Heart Disease Handbook (Fair Winds Press, 2009). “This is something I never even thought possible, but it helps explain the pretty profound effects seen with Mediterranean diet.”
In the study, Spanish investigators recruited 90 healthy volunteers age 20 to 50. One group ate a traditional Mediterranean diet with virgin olive oil rich in heart-protective natural chemicals called polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, blocking the destructive action of oxygen on cells in the body. Earlier research shows that the polyphenols in olive oil have protective effects on blood vessel linings, lower inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease, and reduce formation of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks.
A second group of volunteers ate a Mediterranean diet that included olive oil treated to lower the amount of polyphenols it normally contains; the volunteers in the third group stuck to their own diet.
After three months, researchers saw striking changes in the first group: polyphenols in the olive oil actually dialed down expression of genes that promote inflammation and reduced oxidation of lipids that contribute to heart disease including cholesterol and triglycerides. Other benefits were seen in insulin resistance, a condition linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
The researchers recommend a Mediterranean diet containing virgin olive oil for heart disease prevention. Their genetic discoveries could also lead to the development of new drugs. But why wait for drugs when we already know the diet that helps keep our heart healthy?
CONNECT THE DOTS
Heart disease rates have been going down, but it’s still the leading cause of death in the United States. Recognizing your risks is the first step toward protecting yourself. Then take a look at the Mediterranean diet pyramid to see how to make it work for you.