We’re closer to knowing exactly how our diet affects heart health, based on a recent study that found the Mediterranean diet may reduce cardiovascular risk by minimizing inflammation, controlling blood sugar and promoting a healthy weight. Findings were published in JAMA Network Open and help us understand the underlying relationship between diet and heart health.
Known as the Women’s Health Study, this study followed nearly 26,000 healthy U.S. women for up to twelve years. During the study, women completed questionnaires about their dietary habits. They also underwent blood tests that looked at 40 markers of heart health, such as inflammation, cholesterol and blood sugar. Assessments were completed between 1993 and 1996 and researchers tracked outcomes through 2018.
The goal was to see whether women following a Mediterranean diet had better markers of health and lower risk of heart events than those with different eating patterns.
The Mediterranean diet is common in areas like Italy, Greece, Spain. It’s rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fish—all of which are important to a heart-healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet also includes moderate alcohol intake (up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men) and limits the consumption of meat.
Studies continue to suggest that adherence to the Mediterranean diet helps protect heart health. While we don’t know exactly how this benefit is achieved, recent findings help shine light on the mystery.
Among the 25,994 women in the recent analysis, 39% had poor adherence, 36% had moderate adherence, and 25% had good adherence to the Mediterranean diet. After more than a decade of follow-up, those in the middle group had 23% lower risk for heart events than those with poor adherence to a Mediterranean diet. Those with good adherence had 28% lower risk for heart events than those who did not follow this heart-healthy diet.
What is it about the Mediterranean diet that helps lower cardiovascular risk? Based on the 40 biomarkers evaluated in this study, researchers found that inflammation, blood sugar and weight had the biggest impact on this association. The Mediterranean diet was also associated with reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol, which played a role in risk reduction.
The take-home message, according to authors, is that following the Mediterranean diet may significantly reduce risk for life-threatening heart events like heart attack and stroke. These benefits may be achieved by helping lower known risk factors for heart disease, such as inflammation, obesity and diabetes.
It’s important to note that this study included U.S. women with an average age of 55. However, there is a growing body of evidence linking a Mediterranean diet to better heart health and recent findings help strengthen and explain the reasons behind this association.