Mediterranean and low-fat diets keep hearts healthier and people alive longer

LONDON — Mediterranean and low-fat diets could lower the risk of death and heart attacks among people at high risk of cardiovascular disease, a new study explains. The popular diet could also reduce the risk of stroke, according to an international team.

The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, nuts, grains, fruits, legumes, and fish — but low in meat, dairy, and saturated fats.

“Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), a group of heart and blood vessel disorders, are the number one cause of death and disability globally. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a leading risk factor for CVD and causes over 10 million deaths worldwide each year,” according to a statement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Current guidelines recommend various dietary programs for patients who are more at risk of cardiovascular disease but often rely on low certainty evidence from non-randomized studies. To address this gap in information, researchers trawled databases from randomized trials.

These trials looked at the impact of dietary programs for preventing death and major cardiovascular events in patients at increased risk of cardiovascular disease. They studied 40 trials involving just over 35,500 participants. Each person was followed on average for three years across seven dietary programs. These diets included low fat, Mediterranean, very low fat, modified fat, and combined low fat and low sodium.

They also looked at the Ornish diet, which is a vegetarian diet low in fat, animal protein, and refined sugars. The final program was the Pritikin diet, a low-fat and high-fiber diet.

Mediterranean diet
(Credit: Ponyo Sakana from Pexels)

The study found that the Mediterranean dietary programs were better than minimal intervention at preventing untimely deaths among those at intermediate risk of cardiovascular disease. They also found that there were 17 fewer deaths and non-fatal heart attacks per 1,000 people over five years.

Additionally, there were seven fewer per 1,000 people who suffered from stroke on this diet. Low-fat programs also significantly reduced the risk of death. Compared to those not on the diet, there were nine less deaths per 1,000 people. Results show there were seven fewer per 1,000 people who suffered a non-fatal heart attack. Overall, there were no convincing differences between Mediterranean and low-fat programs for mortality or non-fatal heart attack.

For patients at a high risk of cardiovascular disease, there were 36 fewer all-cause deaths per 1,000 people and 39 fewer cardiovascular deaths per 1,000 people among those who followed the Mediterranean dietary program over five years. The five other dietary programs generally had little to no benefit compared with minimal intervention.

According to a media release by the study authors, Mediterranean and low-fat diets “probably reduce the risk of mortality and non-fatal myocardial infarction in people at increased cardiovascular risk.”

The study is published in the British Medical Journal.

South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

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