In the 1950’s, researcher Ancel Keys noted that the inhabitants of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, were experiencing remarkably fewer heart attacks than his own countrymen in the United States. He applied for funding to begin a study that rocked the scientific world and eventually affected us all.
What Keys and his team discovered was that the Mediterranean diet of post-war Crete correlated highly with a low incidence of cardiovascular disease – up to 70% less cardiovascular disease, the type that results in heart attacks and strokes.
The diet of post-war Mediterranean countries as they struggled back from the poverty caused by the war, was high in vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruit and olive oil, moderate in fish, wine and cereal grains including bread and pasta, and limited in red meat and dairy foods.
The mistake most foodies make with the Mediterranean diet
This is where many people make a mistake today: we tend to think the Mediterranean diet of today, characterised by olive oil, white pasta and red wine, is a healthy diet.
No research has ever showed that.
It is the Mediterranean diet of the 1950s that is quite a healthy diet, and that is very different from what most people call the Mediterranean diet today. The legumes, fruit and vegetables of the 1950’s are not the main players on the plates of most people today attempting to regain heart health using the Mediterranean diet – but olive oil, wine and white flour are.
More research needed
Since the 1950’s there have been thousands of research studies done on different aspects of the Mediterranean diet. Two are of particular interest.
- In 2013 a team put 7449 Spaniards with no diagnosed heart disease on 3 different diets: 1/3 went on a typical Western low fat diet; 1/3 ate a Mediterranean diet containing 1L olive oil a day; 1/3 ate a Mediterranean diet with no olive oil but instead, 30g raw nuts a day. Who ended up with less heart disease? The nut group won – with 83 heart events compared with 96 heart events in the olive oil group (and a to more in the low fat group). This shows that tweaking the Mediterranean diet and bringing it in line with the latest knowledge of nutritional health – makes it even better for heart health.
- In 2012 a ten-year study (the ATTICA study) was completed on the Mediterranean diet. In this study, 2500 Greek adults were studied as to many details of lifestyle and diet. The researchers wanted to learn how the deteriorating heart health of the Mediterranean region was being affected by dietary change away from the traditional Mediterranean diet. What they found was that for every one point increase in the dietary score of the participants of the study (meaning their diet was closer to the traditional local diet), there was a 3% drop in heart disease risk, measured by brachial artery endothelial function, C-reactive protein and more measurements. The top third of adherents to the traditional Mediterranean diet were at 47% lower risk of heart events.
Is 70% lower risk as low as we can get it?
Since the 1950s, many more researchers have worked tirelessly, both in the lab and with human patients, to see if we can get the heart disease rate lower by using parts of the Mediterranean diet and substituting other foods for those foods we now know to be not a nutritious and beneficial for the heart. A 70% reduction in cardiovascular disease is well and good for those who stick strictly to the traditional diet of the region – but what if you or your loved relative is one of the 30% who were not helped by that diet?
“Heart disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never exist. And if it does exist it need never progress. It is a food-borne illness.” – Dr Caldwell Esselstyn
Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D., believed we could get the heart disease rate even lower. Taking the ten main factors that we know put a person at risk of cardiovascular disease, he advised clients regarding their lifestyles on each one. He questioned every aspect of the Mediterranean diet. For instance – red wine. He found that the heart healthy benefits of drinking red wine were just as good if you drank it unfermented – as purple grape juice – and in fact, the grape juice antioxidants remained in the blood stream longer, helping dilate arteries and keep them flexible and reducing the likelihood of clots, than did the antioxidants in red wine. Further, drinking grape juice instead of red wine caused a lot less liver strain, beneficial for other conditions. Ornish had success in bringing heart disease risk even lower than the traditional Mediterranean diet had.
Surgeon, Caldwell Esselstyn, adjusted the Mediterranean diet even further. He went so far as to remove even the olive oil. He found by much experimentation that, for a person with advanced heart disease, olive oil was enough to damage the inner lining cells of the arteries enough to cause a heart event. Olive oil is 14 – 17% saturated fat, which we know damages arterial cells. He removed that and all dairy products from the diets of patients who had already had several heart bypass operations and had been sent home to prepare for death. All who stayed on his diet (and that was most of them) survived and thrived, many of them reversing their heart disease, as shown by angiograms in 1 and 2 year follow ups. This improvement remained for 20 years and still counting.
In the (paraphrased) words of Shakespeare,
“The fault is not in our genes, but in ourselves and the way we eat.”
If you would like help putting together a diet that has been proven for decades to absolutely remove the risk of heart disease and in many cases, reverse it, don’t leave it too late. In the Western world, everyone eating a standard Western diet, has the beginnings of arterial plaque from age 10. We are all ticking time bombs, unless we make meaningful lifestyle and dietary change.
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