The Mediterranean diet has been called into question, but experts say it's still worthy


In 2013, a landmark study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine that made very impressive claims about the Mediterranean diet. Among them: About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease could be prevented in high-risk people if they started following the diet, which is big on olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, and fruits and vegetables. Drinking wine is part of the eating plan too, and the diet earned a solid following, including among celebrities like Penélope Cruz, Brooke Burke, and Rachael Ray.

Now, that study has been called into question due to several factors, like concerns that the randomized trial wasn’t as randomized as it should have been (some people, for example, were asked to follow the diet and then their family members were lumped in with them as if they had been randomly chosen, as well). As a result, the researchers behind the original study retracted their original paper on Wednesday and issued a “reanalysis” of their data, also published in The New England Journal of Medicine. So what’s a layperson to believe?

Elements of the Mediterranean diet, which was recently questioned by a “reanalysis” of the original study touting its effectiveness. (Photo: Getty Images)
Elements of the Mediterranean diet, which was recently questioned by a “reanalysis” of the original study touting its effectiveness. (Photo: Getty Images)

Here’s the thing: The conclusions of the reanalysis are basically the same.

However, the researchers in the study now say that people on the diet had fewer heart attacks and strokes — not that the diet was the reason for that.

Reactions on social media have been mixed: Some people are applauding the study’s researchers for having the guts to do something that’s very rare in the medical community, whereas others are wondering if the Mediterranean diet is still worth it.

It’s important to point out one major fact: The study may have been flawed, but the data wasn’t.

“The issues they had with the study don’t deflect the consistent findings of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet,” Beth Warren, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There are limitations with diet studies in general, and the ones they had seemed more along the common issues than something inherently flawed in the entire study.”

Researchers still found that the Mediterranean diet has heart-healthy benefits and that it can still reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, and death from heart disease. “That’s saying something,” Jessica Cording, a New York registered dietitian, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

It’s also important to note that this isn’t the only research conducted about the Mediterranean diet. The diet has been extensively studied by different researchers from different angles, and all have come to the same conclusion: This is a beneficial diet worth following, health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s also hard to argue with statistics that show people living in the Mediterranean region have lower rates of heart attack and stroke.”

There are a few major, proven benefits from the Mediterranean diet that are worth noting:

It’s heart healthy.

The diet calls for limiting red meat and foods high in saturated fat in favor of lean meats and fish. “That has been proven to lower your risk of high cholesterol and subsequent heart disease,” Wider says. Not only that, the diet also encourages followers to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, both of which have been linked to good heart health, Cording points out.

It’s good for maintaining a healthy weight.

The diet is high in fiber, which is helpful for satiety, Cording says. It also includes healthy fats from foods like olive oil and nuts, which can also help you feel fuller longer.

It may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Reducing such a risk goes back to the fiber, which has been shown to help slow the rate that sugar is absorbed in your system and curb obesity — and that can lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, Wider says.

The only potential concern Wider has with the Mediterranean diet is with alcohol — namely, that some people may overindulge, which can be detrimental to health. Otherwise, experts still endorse the diet. “I’ve been recommending it for almost 10 years now,” Cording says. “It’s very flexible and approachable.”

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