Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet
In this trial, an energy-unrestricted Mediterranean diet supplemented with either extra-virgin olive oil or nuts resulted in an absolute risk reduction of approximately 3 major cardiovascular events per 1000 person-years, for a relative risk reduction of approximately 30%, among high-risk persons who were initially free of cardiovascular disease. These results support the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for cardiovascular risk reduction. They are particularly relevant given the challenges of achieving and maintaining weight loss. The secondary prevention Lyon Diet Heart Study also showed a large reduction in rates of coronary heart disease events with a modified Mediterranean diet enriched with alpha-linolenic acid (a key constituent of walnuts). That result, however, was based on only a few major events.
There were small between-group differences in some baseline characteristics in our trial, which were not clinically meaningful but were statistically significant, and we therefore adjusted for these variables. In fully adjusted analyses, we found significant results for the combined cardiovascular end point and for stroke, but not for myocardial infarction alone. This could be due to stronger effects on specific risk factors for stroke but also to a lower statistical power to identify effects on myocardial infarction. Our findings are consistent with those of prior observational studies of the cardiovascular protective effects of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil, and nuts; smaller trials assessing effects on traditional cardiovascular risk factors and novel risk factors, such as markers of oxidation, inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction; and studies of conditions associated with high cardiovascular risk — namely, the metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Thus, a causal role of the Mediterranean diet in cardiovascular prevention has high biologic plausibility. The results of our trial might explain, in part, the lower cardiovascular mortality in Mediterranean countries than in northern European countries or the United States.
The risk of stroke was reduced significantly in the two Mediterranean-diet groups. This is consistent with epidemiologic studies that showed an inverse association between the Mediterranean diet or olive-oil consumption and incident stroke.
Our results compare favorably with those of the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial, wherein a low-fat dietary approach resulted in no cardiovascular benefit. Salient components of the Mediterranean diet reportedly associated with better survival include moderate consumption of ethanol (mostly from wine), low consumption of meat and meat products, and high consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, and olive oil. Perhaps there is a synergy among the nutrient-rich foods included in the Mediterranean diet that fosters favorable changes in intermediate pathways of cardiometabolic risk, such as blood lipids, insulin sensitivity, resistance to oxidation, inflammation, and vasoreactivity.
Our study has several limitations. First, the protocol for the control group was changed halfway through the trial. The lower intensity of dietary intervention for the control group during the first few years might have caused a bias toward a benefit in the two Mediterranean-diet groups, since the participants in these two groups received a more intensive intervention during that time. However, we found no significant interaction between the period of trial enrollment (before vs. after the protocol change) and the benefit in the Mediterranean-diet groups. Second, we had losses to follow-up, predominantly in the control group, but the participants who dropped out had a worse cardiovascular risk profile at baseline than those who remained in the study, suggesting a bias toward a benefit in the control group. Third, the generalizability of our findings is limited because all the study participants lived in a Mediterranean country and were at high cardiovascular risk; whether the results can be generalized to persons at lower risk or to other settings requires further research.
As with many clinical trials, the observed rates of cardiovascular events were lower than anticipated, with reduced statistical power to separately assess components of the primary end point. However, favorable trends were seen for both stroke and myocardial infarction. We acknowledge that, even though participants in the control group received advice to reduce fat intake, changes in total fat were small and the largest differences at the end of the trial were in the distribution of fat subtypes. The interventions were intended to improve the overall dietary pattern, but the major between-group differences involved the supplemental items. Thus, extra-virgin olive oil and nuts were probably responsible for most of the observed benefits of the Mediterranean diets. Differences were also observed for fish and legumes but not for other food groups. The small between-group differences in the diets during the trial are probably due to the facts that for most trial participants the baseline diet was similar to the trial Mediterranean diet and that the control group was given recommendations for a healthy diet, suggesting a potentially greater benefit of the Mediterranean diet as compared with Western diets.
In conclusion, in this primary prevention trial, we observed that an energy-unrestricted Mediterranean diet, supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts, resulted in a substantial reduction in the risk of major cardiovascular events among high-risk persons. The results support the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.