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Nutrition Column

Understanding the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

High blood pressure is a primary risk factor leading to stroke, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, and vascular disease, but it can be reversed with changes in diet and lifestyle. In a previous post the DASH diet was described as a way to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet, which is a low-saturated fat, plant-based diet has also been associated with a reduction of cardiovascular mortality. The main difference between these two diets is the high intake of olive oil, characteristic of the traditional Mediterranean diet.

A large-scale general population study coordinated by 10 European nations, called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), published in the Amercian Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the role of dietary, biological, lifestyle and environmental factors in the etiology of cancer and other chronic diseases. Over 20,000 persons were included and graded on their adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet. Measurements of body weight, height, and physical activity were assessed by the EPIC questionnaire and trained professionals measured arterial blood pressure. The high daily consumption of vegetables, fruit, and olive oil were obvious with 580g vegetables, 370g fruit, 224g dairy, and 80g olive oil consumed on average every day.

After analysis, the daily consumption of olive oil had a larger effect on lowering blood pressure compared to vegetables. But together the high intake of plant foods along with olive oil provides both the antioxidant activity and minerals needed to reduce blood pressure and maintain the health of the vascular system. Olive oil has also been found to reduce the need for daily blood pressure medication due to its content of polyphenols, which increase the nitric oxide concentrations in arteries that may help with dilation and a reduction in blood pressure.

The findings of this study prove the Mediterranean diet is another natural way to prevent disease resulting from high blood pressure like coronary heart disease and stroke. It was suggested that the addition of olive oil could be an improvement to the already beneficial DASH diet.

Written by Jodie Sasaki with Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D. Occidental College, Los Angeles.