Four Ways to Improve on the Mediterranean Diet

Improving on the Mediterranean Diet.jpg

The traditional Mediterranean diet can be considered mainly, but not exclusively, as a plant-based diet, and certainly not a whole foods, plant-based diet. Olive oil and wine can be considered essentially fruit juices. Even if one is eating a "vegiterranean diet," an entirely plant-based version, there are a number of problematic nutritional aspects that are rarely talked about. For example, the Mediterranean diet includes lots of white bread, white pasta and not a lot of whole grains.

In an anatomy of the health effects of the Mediterranean diet, the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, high cereal consumption, meaning high grain consumption, did not appear to help. This may be because most grains that modern Mediterranean dieters eat are refined, like white bread, whereas the traditional Mediterranean diet was characterized by unprocessed cereals--in other words, whole grains. And while whole grains have been associated with lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, refined grain may increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases. In the PREDIMED study, those who ate the most white bread--but not whole grain bread--gained significant weight.

Alcohol may also be a problem. As a plant-centered diet, adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower cancer risk, but does not appear to lower breast cancer risk. With all the fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans and low saturated fat content, you'd assume there would be lower breast cancer risk, but alcohol is a known breast carcinogen, even in moderate amounts. When researchers created a special adapted version of the Mediterranean diet score that excluded alcohol, the diet does indeed appear to reduce breast cancer risk.

The wonderful grape phytonutrients in red wine can improve our arterial function such that if you drink nonalcoholic red wine (wine with the alcohol removed), you get a significant boost in endothelial function--the ability of our arteries to relax and dilate normally, increasing blood flow. If you drink the same red wine with alcohol, it abolishes the beneficial effect and counteracts the benefit of the grape phytonutrients. So, it would be better just to eat grapes. You can find more information about this in my video Improving on the Mediterranean Diet.

Similarly, there are components of extra virgin olive oil--the antioxidant phytonutrients, that may help endothelial function, but when consumed as oil, (even extra virgin olive oil), it may impair arterial function. So even if white bread dipped in olive oil is the very symbol of the Mediterranean diet, we can modernize it by removing oils and refined grains.

Another important, albeit frequently ignored issue in the modern Mediterranean diet is sodium intake. Despite evidence linking salt intake to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes, dietary salt intake in the U.S. is on the rise. Right now, Americans get about seven to ten grams a day, mostly from processed foods. If we were to decrease that just by three grams every year, we could possibly save tens of thousands of people from having a heart attack, prevent tens of thousands of strokes, and tens of thousands of deaths. There is a common misperception that only certain people should reduce their salt intake and that for the vast majority of the population, salt reduction is unnecessary, but in reality, the opposite is true.

There is much we can learn from the traditional Mediterranean diet. A defining characteristic of the Mediterranean diet is an abundance of plant foods, but one thing that seems to have fallen by the wayside. No main Mediterranean meal is replete without lots of greens, a key part of not only a good Mediterranean diet, but of any good diet.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

I touch more on whole grains in How Many Meet the Simple Seven? and Whole Grains May Work As Well As Drugs.

More on breast cancer and alcohol in Breast Cancer and Alcohol: How Much Is Safe?, Preventing Skin Cancer From the Inside Out, and Breast Cancer Risk: Red Wine v. White Wine.

I've touched on olive oil in the other videos in this Mediterranean diet series, but also have an older video Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Nuts and more recently, Olive Oil & Artery Function.

More on sodium in Dietary Guidelines: With a Grain of Big Salt, Big Salt - Getting to the Meat of the Matter, and Can Diet Protect Against Kidney Cancer? But what if without salt everything tastes like cardboard? Not to worry! See Changing Our Taste Buds.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Four Ways to Improve on the Mediterranean Diet

Improving on the Mediterranean Diet.jpg

The traditional Mediterranean diet can be considered mainly, but not exclusively, as a plant-based diet, and certainly not a whole foods, plant-based diet. Olive oil and wine can be considered essentially fruit juices. Even if one is eating a "vegiterranean diet," an entirely plant-based version, there are a number of problematic nutritional aspects that are rarely talked about. For example, the Mediterranean diet includes lots of white bread, white pasta and not a lot of whole grains.

In an anatomy of the health effects of the Mediterranean diet, the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, high cereal consumption, meaning high grain consumption, did not appear to help. This may be because most grains that modern Mediterranean dieters eat are refined, like white bread, whereas the traditional Mediterranean diet was characterized by unprocessed cereals--in other words, whole grains. And while whole grains have been associated with lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, refined grain may increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases. In the PREDIMED study, those who ate the most white bread--but not whole grain bread--gained significant weight.

Alcohol may also be a problem. As a plant-centered diet, adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower cancer risk, but does not appear to lower breast cancer risk. With all the fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans and low saturated fat content, you'd assume there would be lower breast cancer risk, but alcohol is a known breast carcinogen, even in moderate amounts. When researchers created a special adapted version of the Mediterranean diet score that excluded alcohol, the diet does indeed appear to reduce breast cancer risk.

The wonderful grape phytonutrients in red wine can improve our arterial function such that if you drink nonalcoholic red wine (wine with the alcohol removed), you get a significant boost in endothelial function--the ability of our arteries to relax and dilate normally, increasing blood flow. If you drink the same red wine with alcohol, it abolishes the beneficial effect and counteracts the benefit of the grape phytonutrients. So, it would be better just to eat grapes. You can find more information about this in my video Improving on the Mediterranean Diet.

Similarly, there are components of extra virgin olive oil--the antioxidant phytonutrients, that may help endothelial function, but when consumed as oil, (even extra virgin olive oil), it may impair arterial function. So even if white bread dipped in olive oil is the very symbol of the Mediterranean diet, we can modernize it by removing oils and refined grains.

Another important, albeit frequently ignored issue in the modern Mediterranean diet is sodium intake. Despite evidence linking salt intake to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes, dietary salt intake in the U.S. is on the rise. Right now, Americans get about seven to ten grams a day, mostly from processed foods. If we were to decrease that just by three grams every year, we could possibly save tens of thousands of people from having a heart attack, prevent tens of thousands of strokes, and tens of thousands of deaths. There is a common misperception that only certain people should reduce their salt intake and that for the vast majority of the population, salt reduction is unnecessary, but in reality, the opposite is true.

There is much we can learn from the traditional Mediterranean diet. A defining characteristic of the Mediterranean diet is an abundance of plant foods, but one thing that seems to have fallen by the wayside. No main Mediterranean meal is replete without lots of greens, a key part of not only a good Mediterranean diet, but of any good diet.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

I touch more on whole grains in How Many Meet the Simple Seven? and Whole Grains May Work As Well As Drugs.

More on breast cancer and alcohol in Breast Cancer and Alcohol: How Much Is Safe?, Preventing Skin Cancer From the Inside Out, and Breast Cancer Risk: Red Wine v. White Wine.

I've touched on olive oil in the other videos in this Mediterranean diet series, but also have an older video Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Nuts and more recently, Olive Oil & Artery Function.

More on sodium in Dietary Guidelines: With a Grain of Big Salt, Big Salt - Getting to the Meat of the Matter, and Can Diet Protect Against Kidney Cancer? But what if without salt everything tastes like cardboard? Not to worry! See Changing Our Taste Buds.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Benefits of Nuts for Stroke Prevention

PREDIMED - Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes.jpg

In the PREDIMED study, from the Spanish "PREvencio ́n con DIeta MEDiterranea," a whopping 7,447 patients were randomized into three groups. These were folks at high risk for a heart attack, about half were obese, diabetic and most had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but they had not yet had their first heart attack or stroke. A third were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a free quart of extra virgin olive oil every week. The second group were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a half pound of free nuts every week, and the last third were told to follow the American Heart Association guidelines and reduce their fat intake. No portion control or exercise advice was given, and they were followed for about five years. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first thing you do when you look at a diet intervention trial is see what the groups actually ended up eating, which can be very different from what they were told to eat. For example, the so-called low-fat group started out at 39 percent of calories from fat, and ended up getting 37 percent of calories from fat, which is high fat even compared to the Standard American Diet which comes in at 33 percent, something the researchers plainly acknowledged. In fact, the control group didn't change much at all over the years, so can be thought of as the what-if-you-don't-do-anything group, which is still an important control group to have. Though the two Mediterranean diet groups didn't get much more Mediterranean. You can see the charts in my video PREDIMED: Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes?

The two Mediterranean groups were told to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, and less meat and dairy, but didn't accomplish any of those compared to control. The biggest changes recorded were, not surprisingly, in the consumption of the freebies. The group that got a free jug of extra-virgin olive oil delivered to their home every week really did start increasing their consumption, in part by replacing some of the refined olive oil they had been using. And those that got a half pound of free nuts sent to them every week for four years straight did start eating more nuts.

Basically the researchers designed a study to test two different Mediterranean diets versus a low fat diet, but ended up studying something very different. In essence, they studied what happens when thousands of people switch from consuming about three tablespoons of olive oil a day (half virgin) to four tablespoons of all virgin, compared to thousands of people who all the sudden go from eating about a half an ounce of nuts a day to a whole ounce, compared to thousands of people who don't make much of a change at all. It may not have been what they were hoping for, but these are important research questions in and of themselves.

With no significant differences in meat and dairy intake, there were no significant differences in saturated fat or cholesterol intake, so no surprise there was no significant differences in their blood cholesterol levels, and so no difference in their subsequent number of heart attacks. In the five or so years the study ran, there were 37 heart attacks in the olive oil group, 31 in the nut group and 38 in the neither group. No significant difference. Same with dying from a heart attack or stroke or from any cause--but, those in the olive oil and especially the nut group had significantly fewer strokes. All three groups were eating stroke-promoting diets; some people in all three groups had strokes after eating these diets for years, and so ideally we'd choose diets that can stop or reverse the disease process, but the diet with added extra virgin olive oil caused about a third fewer strokes, and adding nuts seemed to cut their stroke risk nearly in half. If this worked as well in the general population, in the U.S. alone that would mean preventing 89,000 strokes a year. That's would be like ten strokes an hour around the clock prevented simply by adding half an ounce of nuts to one's daily diet.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

The PREDIMED study got a bad rap because of how it was reported, but it's an extraordinary trial that continues to churn out useful results.

More on nuts in:

But what about nuts and weight gain? See Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence .

For videos on olive oil, see Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Nuts and Olive Oil & Artery Function.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Benefits of Nuts for Stroke Prevention

PREDIMED - Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes.jpg

In the PREDIMED study, from the Spanish "PREvencio ́n con DIeta MEDiterranea," a whopping 7,447 patients were randomized into three groups. These were folks at high risk for a heart attack, about half were obese, diabetic and most had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but they had not yet had their first heart attack or stroke. A third were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a free quart of extra virgin olive oil every week. The second group were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a half pound of free nuts every week, and the last third were told to follow the American Heart Association guidelines and reduce their fat intake. No portion control or exercise advice was given, and they were followed for about five years. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first thing you do when you look at a diet intervention trial is see what the groups actually ended up eating, which can be very different from what they were told to eat. For example, the so-called low-fat group started out at 39 percent of calories from fat, and ended up getting 37 percent of calories from fat, which is high fat even compared to the Standard American Diet which comes in at 33 percent, something the researchers plainly acknowledged. In fact, the control group didn't change much at all over the years, so can be thought of as the what-if-you-don't-do-anything group, which is still an important control group to have. Though the two Mediterranean diet groups didn't get much more Mediterranean. You can see the charts in my video PREDIMED: Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes?

The two Mediterranean groups were told to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, and less meat and dairy, but didn't accomplish any of those compared to control. The biggest changes recorded were, not surprisingly, in the consumption of the freebies. The group that got a free jug of extra-virgin olive oil delivered to their home every week really did start increasing their consumption, in part by replacing some of the refined olive oil they had been using. And those that got a half pound of free nuts sent to them every week for four years straight did start eating more nuts.

Basically the researchers designed a study to test two different Mediterranean diets versus a low fat diet, but ended up studying something very different. In essence, they studied what happens when thousands of people switch from consuming about three tablespoons of olive oil a day (half virgin) to four tablespoons of all virgin, compared to thousands of people who all the sudden go from eating about a half an ounce of nuts a day to a whole ounce, compared to thousands of people who don't make much of a change at all. It may not have been what they were hoping for, but these are important research questions in and of themselves.

With no significant differences in meat and dairy intake, there were no significant differences in saturated fat or cholesterol intake, so no surprise there was no significant differences in their blood cholesterol levels, and so no difference in their subsequent number of heart attacks. In the five or so years the study ran, there were 37 heart attacks in the olive oil group, 31 in the nut group and 38 in the neither group. No significant difference. Same with dying from a heart attack or stroke or from any cause--but, those in the olive oil and especially the nut group had significantly fewer strokes. All three groups were eating stroke-promoting diets; some people in all three groups had strokes after eating these diets for years, and so ideally we'd choose diets that can stop or reverse the disease process, but the diet with added extra virgin olive oil caused about a third fewer strokes, and adding nuts seemed to cut their stroke risk nearly in half. If this worked as well in the general population, in the U.S. alone that would mean preventing 89,000 strokes a year. That's would be like ten strokes an hour around the clock prevented simply by adding half an ounce of nuts to one's daily diet.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

The PREDIMED study got a bad rap because of how it was reported, but it's an extraordinary trial that continues to churn out useful results.

More on nuts in:

But what about nuts and weight gain? See Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence .

For videos on olive oil, see Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Nuts and Olive Oil & Artery Function.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet.jpg

Recent studies have shown that higher Mediterranean diet adherence scores are associated with a significant reduction of the risk of death, heart disease, cancer, and brain disease. The problem with population studies like these is that people who eat healthier may also live healthier, and so how do we know it's their diet? I examine this in The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?.

As the American Heart Association position states, "Before advising people to follow a Mediterranean diet, we need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for the lower deaths from heart disease." How do you do that? There are ways you can control for obvious things like smoking and exercise--which many of the studies did--but ideally you'd do an interventional trial, the gold standard of nutritional science. You change people's diets while trying to keep everything else the same and see what happens.

We got that kind of trial 20 years ago with the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study where about 600 folks who had just had their first heart attack were randomized into two groups. The control group received no dietary advice, apart whatever their doctors were telling them, while the experimental group was told to eat more of a Mediterranean-type diet, supplemented with a canola-oil based spread to give them the plant-based omega-3's they'd normally be getting from weeds and walnuts if they actually lived on a Greek isle in the 1950's.

The Mediterranean diet group did end up taking some of the dietary advice to heart. They ate more bread, more fruit, less deli meat, less meat in general, and less butter and cream; other than that, no significant changes in diet were reported in terms of wine, olive oil, or fish consumption. So, they ate less saturated fat and cholesterol, more plant-based omega 3's, but didn't have huge dietary changes. Even so, at the end of about four years, 44 individuals from the control group had a second heart attack, either fatal or nonfatal, but only 14 suffered another attack in the group that changed their diet. So they went from having a 4% chance of having a heart attack every year down to 1%.

A cynic might say that while there was less death and disease, the Mediterranean diet continued to feed their heart disease, so much so that 14 of them suffered new heart attacks while on the diet. Yes, their disease progressed a lot less than the regular diet group (about four times less), but what if there was a diet that could stop or reverse heart disease?

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic recently published a case series of 198 consecutive patients with cardiovascular disease counseled to switch to a diet composed entirely of whole plant foods. Of the 198, 177 stuck to the diet, whereas the other 21 fell off the wagon, setting up kind of a natural experiment. What happened to the 21? This was such a sick group of patients that more than half suffered from either a fatal heart attack or needed angioplasty or a heart transplant. In that same time period of about four years, of the 177 that stuck to the plant-based diet, only one had a major event as a result of worsening disease. As Dean Ornish noted in his response to the latest trial, "a Mediterranean diet is better than what most people are consuming"...but even better may be a diet based on whole plant foods.

Dr. Esselstyn's was not a randomized trial, so it can't be directly compared to the Lyon study, and it included very determined patients. Not everyone is willing to dramatically change their diets, even if it may literally be a matter of life or death. In which case, rather than doing nothing, eating a more Mediterranean-type diet may cut risk for heart attack survivors by about two-thirds. Cutting 99% of risk would be better if Esselstyn's results were replicated in a controlled trial, but even a 70% drop in risk could save tens of thousands of lives every year.

For more on the Mediterranean diet, check out:

For more on Dr. Esselstyn's amazing work:

If the short-chain plant-based omega-3s in flax seeds and walnuts appear so beneficial, what about the long-chain omega-3's found in fish and fish oil? There are pros and cons. See, for example, Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development, Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?, and Omega-3's and the Eskimo Fish Tale.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: wildpixel / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet.jpg

Recent studies have shown that higher Mediterranean diet adherence scores are associated with a significant reduction of the risk of death, heart disease, cancer, and brain disease. The problem with population studies like these is that people who eat healthier may also live healthier, and so how do we know it's their diet? I examine this in The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?.

As the American Heart Association position states, "Before advising people to follow a Mediterranean diet, we need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for the lower deaths from heart disease." How do you do that? There are ways you can control for obvious things like smoking and exercise--which many of the studies did--but ideally you'd do an interventional trial, the gold standard of nutritional science. You change people's diets while trying to keep everything else the same and see what happens.

We got that kind of trial 20 years ago with the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study where about 600 folks who had just had their first heart attack were randomized into two groups. The control group received no dietary advice, apart whatever their doctors were telling them, while the experimental group was told to eat more of a Mediterranean-type diet, supplemented with a canola-oil based spread to give them the plant-based omega-3's they'd normally be getting from weeds and walnuts if they actually lived on a Greek isle in the 1950's.

The Mediterranean diet group did end up taking some of the dietary advice to heart. They ate more bread, more fruit, less deli meat, less meat in general, and less butter and cream; other than that, no significant changes in diet were reported in terms of wine, olive oil, or fish consumption. So, they ate less saturated fat and cholesterol, more plant-based omega 3's, but didn't have huge dietary changes. Even so, at the end of about four years, 44 individuals from the control group had a second heart attack, either fatal or nonfatal, but only 14 suffered another attack in the group that changed their diet. So they went from having a 4% chance of having a heart attack every year down to 1%.

A cynic might say that while there was less death and disease, the Mediterranean diet continued to feed their heart disease, so much so that 14 of them suffered new heart attacks while on the diet. Yes, their disease progressed a lot less than the regular diet group (about four times less), but what if there was a diet that could stop or reverse heart disease?

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic recently published a case series of 198 consecutive patients with cardiovascular disease counseled to switch to a diet composed entirely of whole plant foods. Of the 198, 177 stuck to the diet, whereas the other 21 fell off the wagon, setting up kind of a natural experiment. What happened to the 21? This was such a sick group of patients that more than half suffered from either a fatal heart attack or needed angioplasty or a heart transplant. In that same time period of about four years, of the 177 that stuck to the plant-based diet, only one had a major event as a result of worsening disease. As Dean Ornish noted in his response to the latest trial, "a Mediterranean diet is better than what most people are consuming"...but even better may be a diet based on whole plant foods.

Dr. Esselstyn's was not a randomized trial, so it can't be directly compared to the Lyon study, and it included very determined patients. Not everyone is willing to dramatically change their diets, even if it may literally be a matter of life or death. In which case, rather than doing nothing, eating a more Mediterranean-type diet may cut risk for heart attack survivors by about two-thirds. Cutting 99% of risk would be better if Esselstyn's results were replicated in a controlled trial, but even a 70% drop in risk could save tens of thousands of lives every year.

For more on the Mediterranean diet, check out:

For more on Dr. Esselstyn's amazing work:

If the short-chain plant-based omega-3s in flax seeds and walnuts appear so beneficial, what about the long-chain omega-3's found in fish and fish oil? There are pros and cons. See, for example, Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development, Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?, and Omega-3's and the Eskimo Fish Tale.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: wildpixel / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

What’s the Mediterranean Diet’s Secret?

Why Was Heart Disease Rare in the Mediterranean?.jpg

The Mediterranean Diet is an "in" topic nowadays in both the medical literature and the lay media. As one researcher put it, "Uncritical laudatory coverage is common, but specifics are hard to come by: What is it? Where did it come from? Why is it good? Merits are rarely detailed; possible downsides are never mentioned." So, let's dig in....

After World War II, the government of Greece asked the Rockefeller foundation to come in and assess the situation. Impressed by the low rates of heart disease in the region, nutrition scientist Ancel Keys--after which "K" rations were named--initiated his famous seven countries study. In this study, he found the rate of fatal heart disease on the Greek isle of Crete was 20 times lower than in the United States. They also had the lowest cancer rates and fewest deaths overall. What were they eating? Their diets were more than 90% plant-based, which may explain why coronary heart disease was such a rarity. A rarity, that is, except for a small class of rich people whose diet differed from that of the general population--they ate meat every day instead of every week or two.

So, the heart of the Mediterranean diet is mainly plant-based, and low in meat and dairy, which Keys considered the "major villains in the diet" because of their saturated fat content. Unfortunately, no one is really eating the traditional Mediterranean diet anymore, even in the Mediterranean. The prevalence of coronary heart disease skyrocketed by an order of magnitude within a few decades in Crete, blamed on the increased consumption of meat and cheese at the expense of plant foods.

Everyone is talking about the Mediterranean diet, but few do it properly. People think of pizza or spaghetti with meat sauce, but while "Italian restaurants brag about the healthy measuring in diet, they serve a travesty of it." If no one's really eating this way anymore, how do you study it?

Researchers came up with a variety of Mediterranean diet adherence scoring systems to see if people who are eating more Mediterranean-ish do better. You get maximum points the more plant foods you eat, and effectively you get points deducted by eating just a single serving of meat or dairy a day. So it's no surprise those that eat relatively higher on the scale have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and death overall. After all, the Mediterranean diet can be considered to be a "near vegetarian" diet. "As such, it should be expected to produce the well-established health benefits of vegetarian diets." That is, less heart disease, cancer, death, and inflammation; improved arterial function; a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes; a reduced risk for stroke, depression, and cognitive impairment.

How might it work? I've talked about the elegant studies showing that those who eat plant-based diets have more plant-based compounds, like aspirin, circulating within their systems. Polyphenol phytonutrients in plant foods are associated with a significantly lower risk of dying. Magnesium consumption is also associated with a significantly lower risk of dying, and is found in dark green leafy vegetables, as well as fruits, beans, nuts, soy, and whole grains.

Heme iron, on the other hand--the iron found in blood and muscle--acts as a pro-oxidant and appears to increase the risk of diabetes, whereas plant-based, non-heme iron appears safe. Similarly, with heart disease, animal-based iron was found to significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease, our number one killer, but not plant-based iron. The Mediterranean diet is protective compared to the Standard American Diet--no question--but any diet rich in whole plant foods and low in animal-fat consumption could be expected to confer protection against many of our leading killers.

Here are some more videos on the Mediterranean Diet:

For more information on heme iron, see Risk Associated With Iron Supplements.

More on magnesium is found in How Do Nuts Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death? and Mineral of the Year--Magnesium.

And more on polyphenols can be seen in videos like How to Slow Brain Aging by Two Years and Juicing Removes More Than Just Fiber.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Couleur / Pixabay. This image has been modified.

Original Link

What’s the Mediterranean Diet’s Secret?

Why Was Heart Disease Rare in the Mediterranean?.jpg

The Mediterranean Diet is an "in" topic nowadays in both the medical literature and the lay media. As one researcher put it, "Uncritical laudatory coverage is common, but specifics are hard to come by: What is it? Where did it come from? Why is it good? Merits are rarely detailed; possible downsides are never mentioned." So, let's dig in....

After World War II, the government of Greece asked the Rockefeller foundation to come in and assess the situation. Impressed by the low rates of heart disease in the region, nutrition scientist Ancel Keys--after which "K" rations were named--initiated his famous seven countries study. In this study, he found the rate of fatal heart disease on the Greek isle of Crete was 20 times lower than in the United States. They also had the lowest cancer rates and fewest deaths overall. What were they eating? Their diets were more than 90% plant-based, which may explain why coronary heart disease was such a rarity. A rarity, that is, except for a small class of rich people whose diet differed from that of the general population--they ate meat every day instead of every week or two.

So, the heart of the Mediterranean diet is mainly plant-based, and low in meat and dairy, which Keys considered the "major villains in the diet" because of their saturated fat content. Unfortunately, no one is really eating the traditional Mediterranean diet anymore, even in the Mediterranean. The prevalence of coronary heart disease skyrocketed by an order of magnitude within a few decades in Crete, blamed on the increased consumption of meat and cheese at the expense of plant foods.

Everyone is talking about the Mediterranean diet, but few do it properly. People think of pizza or spaghetti with meat sauce, but while "Italian restaurants brag about the healthy measuring in diet, they serve a travesty of it." If no one's really eating this way anymore, how do you study it?

Researchers came up with a variety of Mediterranean diet adherence scoring systems to see if people who are eating more Mediterranean-ish do better. You get maximum points the more plant foods you eat, and effectively you get points deducted by eating just a single serving of meat or dairy a day. So it's no surprise those that eat relatively higher on the scale have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and death overall. After all, the Mediterranean diet can be considered to be a "near vegetarian" diet. "As such, it should be expected to produce the well-established health benefits of vegetarian diets." That is, less heart disease, cancer, death, and inflammation; improved arterial function; a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes; a reduced risk for stroke, depression, and cognitive impairment.

How might it work? I've talked about the elegant studies showing that those who eat plant-based diets have more plant-based compounds, like aspirin, circulating within their systems. Polyphenol phytonutrients in plant foods are associated with a significantly lower risk of dying. Magnesium consumption is also associated with a significantly lower risk of dying, and is found in dark green leafy vegetables, as well as fruits, beans, nuts, soy, and whole grains.

Heme iron, on the other hand--the iron found in blood and muscle--acts as a pro-oxidant and appears to increase the risk of diabetes, whereas plant-based, non-heme iron appears safe. Similarly, with heart disease, animal-based iron was found to significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease, our number one killer, but not plant-based iron. The Mediterranean diet is protective compared to the Standard American Diet--no question--but any diet rich in whole plant foods and low in animal-fat consumption could be expected to confer protection against many of our leading killers.

Here are some more videos on the Mediterranean Diet:

For more information on heme iron, see Risk Associated With Iron Supplements.

More on magnesium is found in How Do Nuts Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death? and Mineral of the Year--Magnesium.

And more on polyphenols can be seen in videos like How to Slow Brain Aging by Two Years and Juicing Removes More Than Just Fiber.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Couleur / Pixabay. This image has been modified.

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What’s the Optimal Cholesterol Level?

Optimal Cholesterol Level.jpg

No matter where we live, how old we are or what we look like, health researchers from the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health have discovered that 90% of the chance of having a first heart attack "can be attributed to nine modifiable risk factors." The nine factors that could save our lives include: smoking, too much bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, a lack of daily fruit and veggie consumption, as well as a lack of daily exercise.

Dr. William Clifford Roberts, Executive Director of Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and long-time Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, is convinced, however, that atherosclerosis has a single cause--namely cholesterol--and that the other so-called atherosclerotic risk factors are only contributory at most. In other words, we could be stressed, overweight, smoking, diabetic couch potatoes, but if our cholesterol is low enough, there may just not be enough cholesterol in our blood stream to infiltrate our artery walls and trigger the disease. Thus, the only absolute prerequisite for a fatal or nonfatal atherosclerotic event like a heart attack is an elevated cholesterol level.

It was not appreciated until recently "that the average blood cholesterol level in the United States, the so-called normal level, was actually abnormal," accelerating the blockages in our arteries and putting a large fraction of the normal population at risk. That's cited as one of the reasons the cholesterol controversy lasted so long--an "unwillingness to accept the notion that a very large fraction of our population actually has an unhealthily high cholesterol level."

Normal cholesterol levels may be fatal cholesterol levels.

The optimal "bad cholesterol" (LDL) level is 50 to 70. Accumulating data from multiple lines of evidence consistently demonstrate that that's where a physiologically normal LDL level would be. That appears to be the threshold above which atherosclerosis and heart attacks develop. That's what we start out at birth with, that's what fellow primates have, and that's the level seen in populations free of the heart disease epidemic. One can also look at all the big randomized controlled cholesterol lowering trials.

In my video, Optimal Cholesterol Level, you can see graphing of the progression of atherosclerosis versus LDL cholesterol. More cholesterol means more atherosclerosis, but if we draw a line down through the points, we can estimate that the LDL level at which there is zero progression is around 70. We can do the same with the studies preventing heart attacks. Zero coronary heart disease events might be reached down around 55, and those who've already had a heart attack and are trying to prevent a second one might need to push LDL levels even lower.

Atherosclerosis is endemic in our population in part because the average person's LDL level is up around 130, approximately twice the normal physiologic level. The reason the federal government doesn't recommend everyone shoot for under 100 is that despite the lower risk accompanying more optimal cholesterol levels, the intensity of clinical intervention required to achieve such levels for everyone in the population would "financially overload the health care system. Drug usage would rise enormously." But, they're assuming drugs are the only way to get our LDL that low. Those eating really healthy plant-based diets may hit the optimal cholesterol target without even trying, naturally nailing under 70.

The reason given by the federal government for not advocating for what the science shows is best was that it might frustrate the public, "who would have difficulty maintaining a lower level," but maybe the public's greatest frustration would come from not being informed of the optimal diet for health.


It's imperative for everyone to understand Dr. Rose's sick population concept, which I introduced in When Low Risk Means High Risk.

What about large fluffy LDL cholesterol versus small and dense? See Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

More from the Framingham Heart Study can be found in Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease?.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: lightwise © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link

What’s the Optimal Cholesterol Level?

Optimal Cholesterol Level.jpg

No matter where we live, how old we are or what we look like, health researchers from the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health have discovered that 90% of the chance of having a first heart attack "can be attributed to nine modifiable risk factors." The nine factors that could save our lives include: smoking, too much bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, a lack of daily fruit and veggie consumption, as well as a lack of daily exercise.

Dr. William Clifford Roberts, Executive Director of Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and long-time Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, is convinced, however, that atherosclerosis has a single cause--namely cholesterol--and that the other so-called atherosclerotic risk factors are only contributory at most. In other words, we could be stressed, overweight, smoking, diabetic couch potatoes, but if our cholesterol is low enough, there may just not be enough cholesterol in our blood stream to infiltrate our artery walls and trigger the disease. Thus, the only absolute prerequisite for a fatal or nonfatal atherosclerotic event like a heart attack is an elevated cholesterol level.

It was not appreciated until recently "that the average blood cholesterol level in the United States, the so-called normal level, was actually abnormal," accelerating the blockages in our arteries and putting a large fraction of the normal population at risk. That's cited as one of the reasons the cholesterol controversy lasted so long--an "unwillingness to accept the notion that a very large fraction of our population actually has an unhealthily high cholesterol level."

Normal cholesterol levels may be fatal cholesterol levels.

The optimal "bad cholesterol" (LDL) level is 50 to 70. Accumulating data from multiple lines of evidence consistently demonstrate that that's where a physiologically normal LDL level would be. That appears to be the threshold above which atherosclerosis and heart attacks develop. That's what we start out at birth with, that's what fellow primates have, and that's the level seen in populations free of the heart disease epidemic. One can also look at all the big randomized controlled cholesterol lowering trials.

In my video, Optimal Cholesterol Level, you can see graphing of the progression of atherosclerosis versus LDL cholesterol. More cholesterol means more atherosclerosis, but if we draw a line down through the points, we can estimate that the LDL level at which there is zero progression is around 70. We can do the same with the studies preventing heart attacks. Zero coronary heart disease events might be reached down around 55, and those who've already had a heart attack and are trying to prevent a second one might need to push LDL levels even lower.

Atherosclerosis is endemic in our population in part because the average person's LDL level is up around 130, approximately twice the normal physiologic level. The reason the federal government doesn't recommend everyone shoot for under 100 is that despite the lower risk accompanying more optimal cholesterol levels, the intensity of clinical intervention required to achieve such levels for everyone in the population would "financially overload the health care system. Drug usage would rise enormously." But, they're assuming drugs are the only way to get our LDL that low. Those eating really healthy plant-based diets may hit the optimal cholesterol target without even trying, naturally nailing under 70.

The reason given by the federal government for not advocating for what the science shows is best was that it might frustrate the public, "who would have difficulty maintaining a lower level," but maybe the public's greatest frustration would come from not being informed of the optimal diet for health.


It's imperative for everyone to understand Dr. Rose's sick population concept, which I introduced in When Low Risk Means High Risk.

What about large fluffy LDL cholesterol versus small and dense? See Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

More from the Framingham Heart Study can be found in Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease?.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: lightwise © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link