People who carefully followed a Mediterranean diet -- heavy on fish, fruits and vegetables, monounsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil, and low on meat and dairy products -- have much lower risk of developing neurological and cardiovascular disease. Overall it is linked to improved mental and physical heath and a better quality of life.
Raw olive oil and olives themsevles are key sources of unsaturated fatty acids in the Mediterranean diet, provide health benefits to humans.
A ten-year population study is the first to analyse the effect of the Mediterranean-style diet - which commonly emphasizes the consumption fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, fish, olive oil and even a glass of red wine -- in a general population.
"Our study shows that the Mediterranean diet is a beneficial intervention for all types of people -- in both genders, in all age groups, and in both healthy people and those with health conditions," said Ekavi Georgousopoulou, a Ph.D. candidate at Harokopio University in Athens -- who noted that most previous studies have focused on middle-aged people.
"Because the Mediterranean diet is based on food groups that are quite common or easy to find, people around the world could easily adopt this dietary pattern and help protect themselves against heart disease with very little cost," she added.
"It also reveals that the Mediterranean diet has direct benefits for heart health, in addition to its indirect benefits in managing diabetes, hypertension and inflammation."
General population study
The study, due to be presented at the American College of Cardiology's Annual Scientific Session, is based on data from a representative sample of more than 2,500 Greek adults, ages 18 to 89 - who provided researchers with their health information each year from 2001 to 2012. Participants also completed in-depth surveys about their medical records, lifestyle and dietary habits at the start of the study, after five years and after 10 years.
According to the findings, women tended to follow the Mediterranean diet more closely than men.
Despite the fact that Greece is the cradle of the Mediterranean diet, urbanization has led many Greeks to adopt a more Western diet over the past four decades, said Georgousopoulou.
Overall, nearly 20% of the men and 12% of the women who participated in the study developed or died from heart disease during the ten-year follow up.
Georgousopoulou and her colleagues scored participants' diets on a scale from 1 to 55 based on their self-reported frequency and level of intake for 11 food groups.
Those who scored in the top-third in terms of adherence to the Mediterranean diet, indicating they closely followed the diet, were 47% less likely to develop heart disease over the 10-year follow-up period compared to participants who scored in the bottom-third.
Indeed, the team found that each one-point increase in the dietary score was associated with a 3% drop in heart disease risk.
This difference was independent of other heart disease risk factors including age, gender, family history, education level, body mass index, smoking habits, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, all of which the researchers adjusted for in their analysis.
How the Mediterranean diet may reduce mortality is not completely known but the diet is rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A and C which neutralize cell damage from charged particles called free radicals. Antioxidants are thought to help fight cancer and heart disease.
Mae Chan holds degrees in both physiology and nutritional sciences. She is also blogger and and technology enthusiast with a passion for disseminating information about health.