The Mediterranean Diet Versus Meds for Heart Health

Cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer in America and has been for the past 80 years. The bright spot in this bleak news is that heart issues are slow to develop, often taking decades to come to light, so we have time to change our habits and lower our risk of being surprised by a heart attack.

How Do I Lower My Risk for Cardiovascular Disease?

Right off the bat, know that your risk for heart issues is tied to many factors you can’t control,  including gender, genetics, age and ethnicity. The factors that you have some degree of control over include your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Eating a poor diet, smoking and not exercising can all increase your heart disease risk.

If your blood cholesterol is too high, your doctor may prescribe statins, a type of drug that lowers your LDL (aka: bad) cholesterol. Over one in four  Americans over 40 years of age takes a statin, and that number is growing. Statins can lower your risk for heart issues, but they may come with side effects including:

  • Muscle pain, soreness or tiredness
  • Liver damage
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Memory issues

So is there something you can do to prevent heart disease without taking a such a drug? Enter the Mediterranean diet.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

What health experts call the Mediterranean diet evolved over 5,000 years among people who lived along the Mediterranean in what is now Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Morocco. It has sometimes been called the poor man’s diet because its humble ingredients (fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and fish) were widely and cheaply available in the region. Olive oil and nuts also play major roles in this region’s diet.

In 2013, the Mediterranean diet quickly gained popularity after the PREDIMED study published positive results. Researchers found that eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either extra olive oil or nuts reduced the risk of all cardiovascular events (think: stroke, heart attacks and death by heart disease) by 30 percent and 28 percent (depending on whether participants added more olive oil or nuts to their diets) compared to those who were assigned to eat a low-fat diet. This drop in risk is big, especially when you compare it to statins, which one study found reduced risk of all cardiovascular events by 44 percent. Statins win out, but the Mediterranean diet shows significant health benefits.

Here are five other reasons why this study is so exciting:

  1. It’s a randomized trial, the gold-standard of all study types.
  2. It had a large sample size with 7,447 persons enrolled.
  3. It recruited subjects who already had a high risk for getting heart disease.
  4. It followed subjects for almost five years, which is notably longer than most diet studies.
  5. It provided olive oil and nuts to the experimental groups, so diet adherence is better than most other diet studies.

The Takeaway

If you’re currently on a statin, be consistent with your meds — it’s not a good idea to discontinue unless your doctor says so. Whatever your risk for heart disease though, eating a healthy Mediterranean-style diet along with extra virgin olive oil and nuts is a hearty investment.


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