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Heart Disease Health Center

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Mediterranean Diet Helps Women's Hearts

Study Shows Reduction in Stroke and Heart Risk With Mediterranean Diet
By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News

Feb. 16, 2009 -- Pass the olive oil, please. There's more good news today for people who eat a traditionally Mediterranean diet.

American women whose diets are high in monosaturated fat, plant proteins, whole grains, and fish are significantly less likely to develop heart disease and stroke, according to a study published in Circulation.

Researchers looked at data on 74,886 women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study between 1984 and 2002. The women were between the ages of 38 and 63 in 1984.

During 20 years of follow-up, women whose diets most closely matched the Mediterranean diet had a 29% reduced risk of heart disease and a 13% reduced risk of stroke. The Mediterranean-style eaters also had a 39% reduced risk of dying from either heart disease or stroke.

These risk reduction statistics are comparable to those associated with taking cholesterol-lowering medications called statins.

Shifting to a Mediterranean-style diet means getting more protein from plant sources, such as beans and nuts, instead of meat. Fish should be eaten once a week, while red meat should only be eaten once or twice a month.

Researchers note that Americans may take a slightly different approach to the diet, which is traditional in Greece and Southern Italy. For instance, in those countries, olive oil, high in monosaturated fat, is the primary cooking oil and is even used for dipping bread at the table (instead of butter). In the U.S., Mediterranean-style dieters may get more monosaturated fat from canola oil or peanut butter.

"I think the Mediterranean diet is by far one of the easiest to follow because there are no extremes," researcher Teresa T. Fung, says in a news release. Fung is associate professor at Simmons College and adjunct associate professor in nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It does not require you to cut out something or eat only a few number of foods. The types of food common to the Mediterranean diet are pretty easy to get as well. It has a good amount of plant oils, so you are not cutting out fats."

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