March 7th, 2011
04:17 PM ET
By now, you've probably heard all the buzz about the Mediterranean diet, or perhaps you've tried it. Aside from helping to prevent the metabolic syndrome- a cluster of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes- a new study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says, the diet can have positive global effects on the individual risk factors: low HDL ("good") cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and a high blood sugar rate, as seen by your doctor through a blood test. In addition, waist size is a risk factor- a waist more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men is of concern.
The syndrome is present when someone has three of those five risk factors.
"[The study is] one of the first studies that evaluated the role of Mediterranean diet on metabolic syndrome, and revealed a beneficial association- quite a big influence, taking into account that the Mediterranean diet is a non-pharmacological mean," said study author Demosthenes Panagiotakos, from the Department of Science of Dietetics-Nutrition at Harokopio University of Athens in Greece.
The researchers looked at over half a million people from 50 previous studies on the Mediterranean diet, which included people in Spain, Greece, the U.S., France, Sweden, Italy and Australia, among other countries.
They found the beneficial effects from diets rich in fruits and vegetables, olives and olive oil, low-fat dairy products and whole grain cereals. Other components included: a moderate daily intake of alcohol with meals- mostly from red wine; eating fish, poultry or tree nuts (like walnuts or cashews) weekly; and limiting eating red meat to about twice a month. The researchers say what's responsible are the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Panagiotakos added that the diet includes all main food groups, but in a balanced way. The study notes physical activity is also an important part in preventing the risk factors for the metabolic syndrome.
The Mediterranean diet isn't just a little extra olive oil, noted Dr. Robert Eckel, an endocrinologist and past president of the American Heart Association.
"It's all these other components," Eckel said.
"I think the health professional needs to recognize that people that meet the criteria for the metabolic syndrome are at higher risk [for heart disease and diabetes] and we strongly recommend that lifestyle intervention is used to prevent the syndrome and also to modify its prevalence," he said.
According to the American Heart Association, data from 2003-2006 shows a third of adults age 20 and older met that criteria. And just a few years earlier, over 9 percent of adolescents ages 12-19 were classified as having the syndrome. That translates into 2.9 million young people.
But it's not only in the U.S.
"This is a global epidemic," Eckel emphasized. "This is not simply America. It's occurring throughout Mexico, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Australia and around the world."
Eckel said obesity is by far the largest issue responsible for the metabolic syndrome. According to the World Health Organization's 2008 figures, at least one in three of the world's adult population is overweight, and almost one in 10 people is obese. For children, the numbers are also sobering: 20 million kids under age 5 are overweight.
Panagiotakos concludes that this pattern of eating can be easily adopted by people of various cultures and populations.
"The macro-environment we are living promotes obesity in all age groups of people... the choice of a healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, is on our hands. Better eating (from childhood to older life) contributes to better quality of life," he said.
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