Whether you follow health news regularly or you just like to eat well, unless you live under a rock you’ve probably read about the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. We’ve been told for years that this style of eating lowers the risk of a host of chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. Now European researchers say that eating the Mediterranean way does twice as much good as taking statins for those with heart disease.
The study was presented at the world’s largest heart conference, and scientists from across the globe—including the U.S.—attended. The results are the talk of Europe right now. The findings are so profound that there’s ongoing discussion of governments handing out—or at least subsidizing—free fruit and vegetables. But here’s the really interesting thing:
The American media just isn’t reporting this story.
The study was presented last week, and since then has been the topic of dozens of news stories in major papers. However, the U.S. press is all but silent. In fact, after scouring the internet I only found this story reported on three U.S. media sites: CNN Health, Yahoo News, and—of all places—Tech Times. No stories in the New York Times, USA Today, Forbes, or anything else that’s widely read.
What gives? Could it be that Big Pharma’s tentacles don’t just reach deep into our government but into our press too? Is the statin market so important that Big Pharma is muzzling the media to keep it from reporting on a non-drug treatment that people might actually follow?
This was a groundbreaking study, so why aren’t we talking about it?
There have been literally stacks of studies on the Mediterranean diet, and without fail they show it has profound health benefits—especially for your heart and brain. However, all the studies to date have started out with a relatively healthy group of participants. This one took the bull by the horns. The researchers decided that the best way to study the real effect of a Mediterranean diet on heart health would be to do something no one had ever done before. So instead of choosing “moderately healthy” people, they chose people who already suffered from cardiovascular disease.
And the results were even more shocking than they expected.
The study took place in Italy and followed 1,200 people with heart disease for seven years. It turns out that people who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely were 37% less likely to die than those who strayed the furthest from its guidelines.
That’s pretty amazing. And it puts paid to one of the most common arguments questioning whether a Mediterranean diet really is healthier—the old “well, maybe these people just have a healthier lifestyle overall. They were probably in better health to begin with.” This argument has been put out there every single time a new study comes out, but this time it just won’t fly. Because these folks weren’t healthier overall. They obviously didn’t have a healthy lifestyle. They all already had heart disease so something seriously unhealthy was going on.
Yet if they stuck to a Mediterranean diet, they were thirty-seven percent less likely to die than if they didn’t. And that was after taking into account serious health concerns like exercise (or lack of it), smoking, cholesterol levels and even diabetes or cancer.
A thirty-seven percent reduction in mortality is nothing to sneeze at. We’ve had statins pushed on us wholesale on much slimmer evidence than this. In fact, the most generous estimates—which I personally find highly suspect—credit statins with only an 18% reduction in mortality. That means simply changing the way you eat could be twice as effective as statins but without the cost or dangerous side effects.
Why aren’t we prescribing vegetables and fruits instead of statins?
Across the pond, doctors are saying this study shows a Mediterranean diet is “more powerful than any drug.” Heart experts are asking the question we should all be asking: Why are national health services—or in our case, insurance companies—willing to pay for drugs but not vegetables? If a study showed that a new drug cut mortality for heart patients by nearly 40%, insurers would be falling over themselves to cover it. Why can’t doctors prescribe fruit and vegetables the same way?
Because unfortunately Big Pharma wouldn’t make any money. And therein lies the problem.
The truth of the matter is that if we really adopted healthy eating patterns, it would cut the head off the Big Pharma monster. And by “healthy” I don’t mean low-fat, low-salt and based on 11 servings of carbs per day. I mean low-carb, high-vegetable and with plenty of healthy fat. Which—for all our stereotypical picture of pasta-based cuisine, really describes the basic Mediterranean diet. Here are the bones of what this type of eating pattern includes:
- Four servings per week of fish or shellfish.
- Meat no more than 3 times a week.
- At least 3 servings of fresh fruit daily.
- 4 or more servings daily of fresh vegetables.
- Beans or other legumes such as lentils at least once per week and preferably more.
- A daily serving of whole-grain bread or pasta.
- Nuts and seeds on a regular basis.
- A daily glass of wine for women or up to two for men.
- Plenty of olive oil and butter.
Notice what you don’t see on this list? Processed foods. Tons of carbohydrates. Dairy. (Not that a Mediterranean diet bans dairy; it just isn’t an important component.) What you do see is lots of fat, a sufficient amount of protein, and lots and lots of veggies and fruits.
And the focus is on ,fresh food, freshly prepared. No pre-packaged junk. No canned vegetables. No fruit in heavy syrup. In short: real food. This means the Mediterranean diet has even more going for it than its positive effect on your health: It’s simple, which makes it easy to follow. Most foods are fairly easy to prepare, which makes it ideal for people who are unused to cooking for themselves. Most dishes aren’t terribly time consuming, so it’s great for busy people. It’s not terribly expensive to eat Mediterranean, like it is with some alternative diets (I’m looking at you, Paleo!) And on top of all that, it’s just plain good food.
And it seems clear that it just might help you live longer, even if you have existing health issues. So your insurance company won’t pay for a fruit and vegetable prescription, true. But the benefit sure makes paying out of pocket worth the cost.