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Mediterranean Diet not just for Mediterranean people



OlivesThere are a lot of misconceptions about the Mediterranean Diet, and of course the biggest one is that you can only eat Greek food. Long-time readers and followers of Dr. Gourmet know that Dr. Gourmet's mission is translating Mediterranean Diet principles for the American (Western) palate. There's another misconception that I run into frequently, however, and it's that because the peoples around the Mediterranean Sea are mostly white (debatable), its benefits haven't been adequately established for non-whites or people who don't live in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

It's true that there have been a limited number of studies of the effects of the Mediterranean Diet on blacks and Hispanics in the United States. Fortunately a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2011;94(6):1458-64) seeks to close that information gap with a prospective (following people over time as opposed to asking them to recall past information) study involving over 2500 men and women living in Northern Manhattan in New York City.

The participants were all at least 40 years of age who had not been previously diagnosed with an ischemic stroke. Over half of the participants were self-identified Hispanic (55%) and 24% were black. At the start of the study the participants responded to a detailed questionnaire asking how often they ate certain foods, including specific Hispanic dietary items. Their blood pressure was taken and their blood glucose and cholesterol levels tested, in addition to the participants providing information on specific health issues, their education, smoking status and their level of physical activity.

For the following 12 years the researchers recontacted the participants on a yearly basis to check on whether they had experienced changes in their health, had been hospitalized, had changed medications or made any other significant changes in their diet or exercise habits.

Using the information gathered through the diet questionnaire, the researchers were able to assign each person a Mediterranean Diet score based on the nine principles of the Mediterranean Diet. Those whose diets most closely matched an ideal Mediterranean-style diet received a score of 9, while those whose diets least closely matched received a zero. The researchers were then able to match the diet score of those who experienced a stroke or heart attack during the course of the study with those who did not.

They found that after controlling for such variables as gender, weight, age, etc., those whose diet scores were highest (scoring 6-9) were 20% less likely to experience a stroke or heart attack than those whose scores were the lowest (scoring 0-2). In fact, each single-point increase in a person's Mediterranean Diet score meant a 5% reduction in risk of heart attack or stroke.

What this means for you

The results in this study are consistent with the results from other studies of the Mediterranean Diet performed elsewhere in the world, but that's not really what's important about this study. What's important here is that this study was performed in a largely black and Hispanic community right here in the United States. Once again, it's not Mediterranean food but the types of foods and how much of them - the principles of the Mediterranean Diet - that have been shown to be good for your health.

First posted: December 7, 2011