Mediterranean diet alone may help prevent diabetes

mediterranean dietChoosing a Mediterranean diet that’s particularly rich in either extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) or mixed nuts may lower a person’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes, according to a study in Annals of Internal Medicine.

A Mediterranean diet typically emphasizes plant-based foods and heart-healthy oils. It includes fruits and vegetables, beans, herbs and spices, and fish, with very little red meat. It’s been linked with a lower risk for heart disease, as well as a decrease in heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure.

Type 2 diabetes (the most common form of diabetes) can lead to complications such as heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and amputations.

A combination of a restricted-calorie diet and increased physical activity can cut the risk for type 2 diabetes in half, according to background information in the study. That’s not always an easy prescription for people to follow.

Investigators wanted to find out if switching to the Mediterranean diet alone might help prevent diabetes—without any change in physical activity or calorie restriction.

About this study

Researchers in Spain tracked 3,541 men and women ages 55 to 80 who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) but didn’t have either CVD or diabetes at the start of the study.

Each person was randomly assigned to one of three diets: a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 50 milliliters daily of EVOO; a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 30 grams daily of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts; or a low-fat diet.

No one was asked to cut calories or increase exercise. The average weight of the people did not differ by group at the start of the study. At the end of the study, changes in weight, waist size and physical activity were minor and did not differ by group.

Researchers followed the people for an average of four years. A total of 273 people developed diabetes during that time. Of those:

  • 80 were from the Mediterranean diet/EVOO group
  • 92 were from the Mediterranean diet/mixed nuts group
  • 101 were from the low-fat diet group

After adjusting for factors like age, weight, smoking status and alcohol intake, the EVOO group had a 40 percent lower risk for type 2 diabetes than the low-fat group; the mixed nuts group had about a 20 percent lower risk. When the two Mediterranean diet groups were combined, the risk for diabetes was 30 percent lower than the low-fat group.

The study sample was confined to older white people at risk for CVD, so the findings might be different for people of other races or health conditions. In addition, the low-fat diet group had a higher dropout rate during the study period than did either of the two Mediterranean diet groups.

The take-home message
A number of studies have found that following a Mediterranean-style diet offers several health benefits. This study appears to have found at least two more: It may lower the risk for developing type 2 diabetes without big changes in weight loss or exercise, and people are more likely stick with a Mediterranean diet because the food tastes better than in a generic low-fat diet.Learn about your personal risk factors for diabetes by taking this Diabetes Risk Assessment, and talk with your doctor about the best approach to avoiding the disease.

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