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Big Pharma’s Best Kept Secret: A Mediterranean Diet Can Save Your Life

This diet wards off heart attacks, strokes and death, so why are we still focusing on the fallacy of a cholesterol model of heart disease?

For those looking to start the New Year off on the right track with a health kick that’s easy and can help you live longer, it’s time to bring out the olive oil and wine!

Recent major clinical trials have confirmed years of research showing that heart disease can not only be prevented by following a Mediterranean diet, but this eating pattern is proven to reduce heart attacks, strokes and death in both heart patients and healthy people.

Scientists first noticed the benefits of the diet  in the 1950s when it was observed that Mediterranean people from countries like Spain, Italy, Southern France and Turkey experienced far fewer deaths from heart disease and  lower death rates compared with most other populations, including the United States.  Speculative studies pointed to diet and lifestyle as the primary reason, specifically  reduced intake of saturated fat.

Yet, while the diet is low in saturated fat, it is far from a low-fat diet.  “The diet is more like an ocean-side vacation on the Riviera than a health intervention," Dr. David H. Newman, MD an  Emergency Medicine expert and author of  TheNNT explained to AlterNet. “It includes protective effects of olive oil, moderate intakes of red wine, and a heavy reliance on fruit and vegetables and paucity of dairy and red meat.  It is low in saturated and omega-6 fats but high in omega-3 antioxidants.”

Almost two decades of  research has shown that heart patients who ate this diet saw life-changing benefits.  A  study last month, which followed 10,000 women in their 50s and 60s over 15 years, found that those who had a better diet quality at mid-life - mirrored on a Mediterranean diet - experienced greater health and wellbeing 15 years later and were  40 percent more likely to live past the age of 70 without chronic illness.

Another major clinical  study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, which followed more than 7000 people  without cardiovascular disease for five years, revealed that the Mediterranean diet  also extended to preventing first-time heart problems in healthy people and reduced heart attacks and deaths by up to 30 percent.

The study found that those who ate a common Mediterranean diet suffered fewer heart problems than those who ate a low-fat diet similar to the  American Heart Association (AHA) recommended diet.  Think about how effective the diet would have fared if its competitor had been the  average American diet that is much higher in fats and carbohydrates than the AHA recommended diet. 

Such observations raise the question of what role cholesterol plays in heart disease given the  recent trend of the AHA and cardiology experts advocating for the  increase in use of cholesterol-reducing drugs as a way to prevent heart problems.

Typically in the United States, if your cholesterol levels are high, specifically your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels which are considered to be the “ bad cholesterol“ responsible for blockages (as opposed to the "good" HDL cholesterol) practitioners are more than eager to put you on drugs known as statins to lower cholesterol levels. But here’s some food for thought –  three quarters of people who visit the ER experiencing their first heart attack have  normal cholesterol levels, Newman says.

“For people who have high cholesterol, the thing to remember is that it’s not as nearly as dangerous as we are led to believe,” he said.  “I work in ER and when I see people come in experiencing a heart attack for the very first time, there is good  data to tell me as well as my own personal experience that three-quarters of those people with first ever heart attacks do not have high cholesterol.”

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