By Beth Fontenot, MS, RD, LDN
If you are among the people of a certain age and a certain (over)weight, you will be grateful for the following news. Eating a Mediterranean diet is so beneficial that it appears to keep the risk of developing diabetes at bay.
The reduced risk was seen even in people who did not engage in more traditional diabetes prevention methods such as counting calories, exercising, or losing weight.
Does that person sound like you?
People who had at least three risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but were still free of diabetes, were randomly assigned to follow one of three diets: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil; a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts; or a low-fat diet. The diets were not calorie-restricted.
After four years the people who ate the Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the low-fat diet. Those who followed the Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts also saw a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, but not to the point of being considered statistically significant.
When data from both Mediterranean diet groups were merged, there was a 30 percent reduction in the risk for diabetes.
The low-fat diet group had the most new cases of diabetes. More people in this group dropped out of the study, as well. The study, by Spanish researchers, examined data collected from over 3,500 people aged 55 to 80 years.
The Mediterranean diet is heavy on fruits and vegetables, high-fiber grains, legumes, fish, and foods high in unsaturated fats like olive oil and nuts. Red meat and high-fat dairy foods, which are high in saturated fat, are generally limited or avoided.
The diet is also an excellent source of two types of beneficial fats — monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats help stabilize blood sugar levels and provide satiety, so people generally eat less.
The foods included in the diet also tend to be lower calorie foods so weight loss may occur over time, but without the rigors of counting calories.
It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of diabetes as a public health issue. It is the leading cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and new cases of blindness among adults in the US. It is a major cause of heart disease and stroke, and the seventh leading cause of death.
Diabetes affects 25.8 million people or 8.3% of the United States population. As of 2010, 10.9 million, or 26.9 percent, of US residents aged 65 years and older had diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Type 2 diabetes is typically seen in people over the age of 45 who are overweight and have a family history of the disease. It is the more common type of diabetes, affecting 90 to 95 percent of people who have diabetes.
Given these results, the hope is that people at risk for diabetes and who are not motivated to lose weight will find the Mediterranean diet and its focus on good food, rather than calorie-counting and weight loss, appealing.
The diet's protective effects could prove to have positive public health implications, reducing diabetes and the economic burden it brings.
Almost as important, this study showed that dietary changes are effective in an older population, demonstrating that it’s never too late to start eating right.
The study is published online in Annals of Internal Medicine.
January 9, 2014