For more than 30 years Dr. Andrew Weil has been the leading proponent of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. During this time, there have been many studies demonstrating that a diet composed of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts and seeds, small amounts of red meat and increased amounts of fish reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and even premature death.
In the New England Journal of Medicine, a large study confirmed that the Mediterranean diet significantly reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke in people who are at an increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
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The study, conducted in Spain, had over 7,000 participants. The participants were divided into three groups. The first group followed the Mediterranean diet with one liter of extra-virgin olive oil consumed each week. The second group followed the Mediterranean diet with daily mixed nut consumption (walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds) instead of the extra-virgin olive oil and the third group was simply counseled on reducing fat in their diet.
All the participants, at the beginning of the study, were free of cardiovascular disease but had a number of risk factors. The study lasted approximately seven years and the results were highly significant. Both the first and second group had about a 30 percent reduction in heart attack and stroke when compared to the group that was simply counseled on reducing fat in their diet. Interestingly, the group that consumed nuts rather than the extra-virgin olive oil had the lowest incidence of heart attack and stroke.
The medical costs associated with heart attack and stroke is measured in the billions of dollars per year. Although there are a number of medications that can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, their cost is also measured in billions of dollars per year. According to this most recent study, the effectiveness of medications at reducing the risk of new stroke and heart attack does not seem to be, overall, any better than simply improving diet.
If diet changes are so beneficial to our health, what are the factors that limit Americans from eating better? One answer may be cost. Less healthy food is cheaper and healthy food. The reason is related to government subsidies. Over the past decade, more than $17 billion in federal subsidies went to those involved in the production of high fructose corn syrup, corn sugar and cornstarch. Almost 85 percent of all food subsidies go to meat and dairy producers. In stark contrast, less than 2.5 percent of federal food subsidies go to the producers of fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans.
Changing the way that we eat could reduce an individual's lifetime medical expenses by well over $100,000. Although the Mediterranean diet may be more expensive than eating fast foods or heavily processed foods, the benefits in health and well-being and cost savings far outweigh any disadvantages. Maybe food subsidies should go to the people to help them buy healthier food.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.