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Mediterranean diet may help prevent diabetes

Eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil, nuts, and tomato-based sauces may reduce people’s chances of getting type 2 diabetes, according to new research.
By Grant Stewart

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

Greek Salad

Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common. It causes too much sugar in the blood. Although it may not have any outward symptoms by itself, this type of diabetes can lead to other serious conditions, such as damage to blood vessels, heart disease, kidney failure, blindness, lower-limb amputation, and early death.

We know that, just as poor diet can be one of the causes of type 2 diabetes, a healthy diet can help prevent it. The difficulty is in finding out which healthy diet works best to prevent disease.

In this new study, researchers looked at one of the most popular diets of recent years, the so-called Mediterranean diet. It’s an interesting choice for a ‘healthy’ diet, because it contains quite a lot of fat. Diets that aren’t low-fat are usually thought of as unhealthy. But the main fats in the Mediterranean diet don’t come from meat, but from olive oil and nuts. This may be one reason why previous studies have found this diet to have some health benefits compared with some other diets.

The main features of the Mediterranean diet are:

  • lots of olive oil instead of butter and other animal fats
  • sauces rich in onions, garlic, and tomatoes
  • plenty of fruit, vegetables, and nuts
  • white meat and fish often replace red meat or processed meat
  • not too many sweets and puddings.

Other things we know about type 2 diabetes is that it is more common in people who are overweight, and especially in those who are very overweight (obese). And, for people with diabetes, losing weight can help stop the damage caused by the disease. But losing weight is difficult. And people who try to make several lifestyle changes at once may just find it so hard that they give up. So the researchers in this study wanted to find out if just changing to a Mediterranean diet without trying to lose weight could help people avoid diabetes.

They recruited just over 3,500 people and divided them into three groups. The first group was asked to follow a Mediterranean diet with an extra portion of extra-virgin olive oil every day. The second was also assigned to the Mediterranean diet plus an extra portion of nuts each day. The third group was given general advice about a low-fat diet, but was not otherwise advised what to eat.

All the people in the study were aged at least 55, and were thought to be at high risk of getting heart disease, but none of them had diabetes. After a study period of four years, the researchers looked to see how many people in the groups had diabetes.

What does the new study say?

At the end of the study:

  • just under 7 in 100 people who followed the Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil had type 2 diabetes
  • between 7 and 8 in 100 people who followed the Mediterranean diet with extra nuts had type 2 diabetes
  • just under 9 in 100 people given advice on a low-fat diet had type 2 diabetes
  • people found the Mediterranean diet easier to stick to than the low-fat diet.

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