A major study has found that eating a healthy Mediterranean diet could be better than statins at cutting the risk of an early death. Leading experts said people with cardio-vascular disease should be prescribed a diet high in olive oil, vegetables and nuts before doctors consider turning to pills. The findings, presented in Rome recently at the world’s biggest heart conference, found that people with cardio-vascular disease, who followed the diet, were 37% less likely to die than patients who did not. British doctors said the study offers a simple way for people with heart disease to boost their survival chances – with no risk of side effects.
The Mediterranean diet is already known to protect healthy people from developing heart problems, diabetes and cancer. But the new study is the strongest evidence to date that it could also be a powerful treatment for people who already have cardio-vascular disease. More than 7 million people in the UK are living with heart conditions – many of them suffering from angina, blocked arteries or even already have suffered a heart attack or stroke. These patients are nearly always prescribed statins which reduce levels of cholesterol and are proven to save lives. The medication cuts the chance of early death amongst people with cardio-vascular disease by 18%, according to a 2013 review involving 200,000 patients.
Some experts say statins are priceless, saving an estimated 7,000 lives in Britain every year, but many GPs and patients are concerned about over-prescription of the pills – which cost just £2 a month. A Mediterranean diet is typically rich in fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil. It usually involves low levels of carbohydrates, sugar and processed food – but people who follow it do not usually count calories or watch their fat intake. Experts think the diet has such a strong impact on heart patients because it is high in protective fats such as Omega 3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids.
The Italian team looked at the diets of nearly 1,200 heart patients and tracked them for seven years. I n that time 208 patients died. After taking into account other factors such as diabetes, smoking, cholesterol levels and age, they calculated that those who most closely followed the ‘ideal Mediterranean diet’ were 37% less likely to die during the study period than those whose eating patterns were the farthest from the Mediterranean diet.
Scientists warned that people prescribed the drugs should not stop taking them without speaking to their doctors, but they said that people with heart disease whether they are taking statins or not, could significantly improve their life expectancy if they changed their eating habits.
Professor Giovanni de Gaetano, a researcher at the IRCCS Neuromed Institute in Pozzilli, Italy, said: ‘First of all doctors should consider diet before drugs. It could allow patients to get the benefits of statins but without the side effects.’ Presenting his data at the European Society of Cardiology Congress, Professor de Gaetano said statins remain important, but he added if more doctors advise patients to change their diets, statin use might be reduced. He suggested government subsidies would make it easier for people to follow the Mediterranean diet.
The problem is that the NHS pays for drugs, but it does not pay for vegetables and fruit. London cardiologist, Dr Aseem Malhodra, who has long advocated a diet-driven approach to maintaining health, said the results were’ extraordinary’. He added: ‘The Mediterranean diet is more powerful than any drug in reducing death rates in patients with cardio-vascular disease. It’s the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of foods such as olive oil, nuts, oily fish and vegetables where the benefits lie, and unlike cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, come without side effects. It’s time for the NHS to embrace lifestyle medicine to save it from the collapse being predominantly driven by diet-related disease.’
Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundations added: ‘It is good to know that even if you already have a history of cardio-vascular diseases, adhering to a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of death.’
My own diet has always been Mediterranean but for the past two years I have learned to eat less bread, a smaller breakfast, a good lunch and an extremely light dinner taken as early as possible, but not later than 7 pm. The result has been remarkable. I feel more energetic and rather perky.
For those who follow my blog know already that the secret of it all lies in the quantity of food you eat. Moderation is the key and a good night’s sleep is likely to elongate your life and banish some of the problems of old age or at least the capacity to bear them with fortitude.