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May 13, 2014

Olive Oil Helps Prevent Irregular Heartbeat

Adopting a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil may reduce risk for atrial fibrillation, the most common type of irregular heart rhythm in the United States.

Adding extra-virgin olive oil to your diet may reduce risk of an irregular heartbeat, according to research published in the medical journal Circulation.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, currently affecting 2.66 million Americans. AFib drastically increases risk for life-threatening complications like stroke and heart failure and unfortunately, strategies to prevent AFib have been virtually non-existent—until now.

Conducted in Spain, the PREDIMED trial tested the potential health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Beginning in 2003, researchers recruited thousands of adults who were at risk for heart disease and randomly assigned them to a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either olive oil (4 tablespoons a day) or mixed nuts, or a low-fat diet.

After enrolling almost 7,500 participants, researchers followed individuals for around five years and found that participants consuming a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil had nearly 40% lower risk of developing AFib compared to those on a low-fat diet. However, there was no significant difference in AFib risk between adults following a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts vs. a low-fat diet.

Still, authors are encouraged by these findings. Initial results from the PREDIMED trial suggest that a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil reduces risk of stroke, heart attack and death. The fact that olive oil may also help reduce risk of AFib—a common and growing health condition in the United States—is extremely promising. However, there haven’t been any clinical trials designed specifically to assess the effect of the Mediterranean diet on AFib and authors hope for future research on the topic. It’s estimated that by 2050, almost 16 million individuals in the United States will have AFib and preventive strategies like adopting a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil could help minimize the impact of AFib across the country.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is the Mediterranean diet?
  • The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating rather than a formal diet plan. It features foods eaten in Greece, Spain, southern Italy and France, and other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.

    The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating foods like fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber breads and whole grains, and olive oil. Meat, cheese, and sweets are very limited. The recommended foods are rich with monounsaturated fats, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids.

    The Mediterranean diet is like other heart-healthy diets in that it recommends eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber grains. But in the Mediterranean diet, an average of 35-to-40% of calories can come from fat. Most other heart-healthy guidelines recommend getting less than 35% of your calories from fat. The fats allowed in the Mediterranean diet are mainly from unsaturated oils, such as fish oils, olive oil, and certain nut or seed oils (such as canola, soybean, or flaxseed oil). These types of oils may have a protective effect on the heart.  For more information, read this overview of the Mediterranean diet.
  • Is olive oil considered heart-healthy?
  • Yes, extra-virgin olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, which is considered a “healthy” fat. Replacing unhealthy fats (unsaturated and trans fats) with monounsaturated fats can have a variety of health benefits, including reducing risk for heart disease.

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Extra virgin or virgin olive oil is preferable because it isn't chemically produced and has more antioxidants.

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