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Now, New Reasons to Go Greek

Eating Like a Cretan

WebMD Feature

April 9, 2001 -- Glittering beaches, hillsides stitched with gnarled grape vines, lemon trees glistening in the sun ...

 

There are plenty of reasons to envy life in the Mediterranean. And if the warm climate and congenial lifestyle aren't enough, here's another: The traditional Mediterranean diet continues to be the healthiest, as well as one of the most delicious, in the world.

 

For years, of course, nutritionists have been lauding the Mediterranean diet as a way to lower heart disease risk. Now the latest evidence suggests that it may protect people who already have had a heart attack.

 

In the GISSI-Prevenzione Study, presented at the conference of the American Heart Association in December 2000, Italian scientists followed 11,324 Italians who had suffered heart attacks, keeping track of the amounts of Mediterranean-style foods they ate (vegetables, fruit, fish, and olive oil) as well as their intake of butter, a decidedly non-Mediterranean food. Those who slathered on butter were three times more likely to die within the 42-month study period as those who filled their plates with the four traditional Mediterranean foods.

 

Why? Researchers are still tallying up the virtues that make the Mediterranean diet so beneficial. Dozens of studies have shown that replacing the saturated fat in butter with the monounsaturated form found in olive oil (as well as canola and peanut oil) improves the ratio of good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein, or HDL) to bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein, or LDL). That, in turn, can help keep blood vessels unclogged with the waxy substance.

 

A cornucopia of health benefits

Other new findings suggest that the Mediterranean diet also may protect against heart disease by preventing LDL cholesterol in the blood stream from becoming oxidized -- a process that damages the lining of blood vessels. In a study published in the Sept. 30, 2000, issue of Medicina Clinica, Spanish researchers put 41 healthy male volunteers on three consecutive four-week diets. The first month their menu was high in saturated fat. The second month they ate a diet low in both saturated and total fat. The third month their diet followed the Mediterranean model -- high in monounsaturated fat.

 

Analyzing blood samples, the scientists found that the Mediterranean diet significantly reduced the oxidation of LDL particles. Over time, that reduction could go a long way toward protecting blood vessels from the kind of damage that leads to heart disease.

 

There's more to commend the Mediterranean diet. Two essential ingredients -- olive oil and onions -- have been shown to lower blood pressure, which would further decrease heart disease danger.

 

In a study published in February 2001 in the German journal Arzneitmittelforschung, researchers compared the effect of capsules containing macerated onion and olive oil with placebo pills. In the 24 volunteers, all of whom suffered from high blood pressure, the blood pressure significantly declined after a week on the onion-olive oil pills.

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