It doesn’t take a research study to tell us that the typical American diet is crap. We eat foods full of saturated fats, which are difficult to break down, and way too much of most foods.   Over 25% of the American population is estimated to be obese, according to the Center for Disease Control(CDC).   Obesity can lead to severe health problems including diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

But somehow our diet stays the same. However, changing our eating habits to resemble a more Mediterranean Diet can help prevent some of these health problems, according to a wave of studies over the last year.

Is a Mediterranean diet a cure-all?   No, there is some hype and that's why I joke about it being the new Prius - it won't do any good to eat 4,000 calories per day of Mediterranean food.   But if you eat a reasonable amount of calories and swap out candy bars for nuts, the data says you will be healthier.

The average American diet is comprised of red meats, processed starches, and a high amount of saturated fats. Fruits and vegetables are limited. As a result, heart disease is one of the leading cause of death for men and women in the US.    This Wendy's delightful concoction is 3,000 calories and 1.5 lbs. of ground beef.   Photo credit: flickr user nickdamico

According to a study(1) led by Teresa Fung, a nutrition professor at Simmons College, women whose diets matched a typical Mediterranean diet saw 29% less risk of heart disease and a 13% less risk of stroke. These are significant factors because these are two of the leading causes of death among both women and men in the US.

Fung’s study documented findings from a large-scale study which used data 74,886 women ranging from ages 38-63 and focused on their diet and incidence of heart disease and stroke in the participants.

Mediterranean food, featuring starches from unrefined sources, like this risotto, and proteins from fish and seafoods, as well as increased nutrition from fruits and vegetables are the source for the lowered heart disease and stroke risks in people with a similar diet. Photo credit: flickr user avlxyz.  

So what does this mean for you? That you should put the butter down and pick up the olive oil. Olive oil is used as the primary cooking oil in Italy and Greece, and is a source of monounsaturated fat, which is much easier for the body to break down. Modeling a Mediterranean diet also means a larger percentage of plant protein in the diet as well as whole grains and fish should replace more commonly found red meats, refined grains and sugars of the American diet. The Mediterranean diet shifts towards more plant-based nutrition, as well as proteins from sources like beans and nuts rather than red meats.

Although previous studies have shown an association between the Mediterranean diet and a reduced risk of cardiovascular problems in both men and women, this is the first study to conduct follow-up for a 20 year period and to look at non fatal events.

"These are dramatic results," said Fung. "Women whose diets look like the Mediterranean diet are not only less likely to die from heart disease and stroke, but also less likely to have those diseases."

The future isn't ideal even in the Meditteranean, she notes.  American-style fast food and red meat may be replacing the Mediterranean diet even in Mediterranean countries


Teresa T. Fung ScD, Kathryn M. Rexrode MD, Christos S. Mantzoros MD, JoAnn E. Manson MD, DrPH, Walter C. Willett MD, DrPH, and Frank B. Hu MD, PhD, 'Mediterranean Diet and Incidence of and Mortality From Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke in Women', Published online before print February 16, 2009, doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.816736

More studies on the Mediterranean diet

The Obesity Society