About 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and even drink wine with meals, a large and rigorous new study found.
The findings, published on the New England Journal of Medicine's Web site on Monday, were based on the first major clinical trial to measure the diet's effect on heart risks. The magnitude of the diet's benefits startled experts. The study ended early, after almost five years, because the results were so clear it was considered unethical to continue.
The diet helped those following it even though they did not lose weight and most of them were already taking statins, or blood pressure or diabetes drugs to lower their heart disease risk.
"Really impressive," said Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. "And the really important thing - the coolest thing - is that they used very meaningful end points. They did not look at risk factors like cholesterol of hypertension or weight. They looked at heart attacks and strokes and death. At the end of the day, that is what really matters."
Until now, evidence that Mediterranean diet reduced risk of heart disease was weak, based mostly on studies showing that people from Mediterranean countries seemed to have lower rates of heart disease - a pattern that could have been attributed to factors other than diet. Some experts had been skeptical that effect of diet could be detected, because many take drugs to reduce risk.