Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Australia, and the risk of developing it is significantly altered by what you eat — which is why many health experts recommend the Mediterranean diet.
“The Mediterranean diet is fast earning a reputation as the world’s healthiest diet and is renowned for delivering improved cardiovascular and cognitive health,” said Alexandra Wade, a PhD candidate in the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia (UniSA).
The diet prescribes high amounts of olive oil, fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains; moderate amounts of fish, chicken, dairy and even red wine; and low amounts of red meat, sugar and processed foods.
It’s a pretty great way to eat, but falls short in one area: “moderate dairy” means about one or two serves a day, whereas the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend adults eat 2.5 to four serves of dairy a day.
The Mediterranean diet’s missing dairy means Australians could fall short of their calcium requirements, potentially risking the health of their bones as they age.
So Wade and a UniSA team set out to determine whether a Mediterranean diet boosted with extra helpings of low-fat dairy would still improve cardiovascular disease risk factors, publishing their results in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
They recruited 41 men and women from around Adelaide — and aged between 45 and 75, and all at risk of cardiovascular disease — and put them on two diet plans.
The first diet followed the standard guidelines of the Mediterranean diet, but included three to four daily servings of dairy foods to hit the calcium target. One serve of dairy equalled a cup of low-fat milk, 200g of low-fat Greek yoghurt, 200g of tzatziki, and no more than one portion of cheese. (Butter and cream remained off the list.)
The second diet was a low-fat diet, long the standard Australian recommendation to those at risk of cardiovascular disease.
All participants followed one of the diet plans for eight weeks, went back to normal eating for eight weeks, then switched to the other diet for eight weeks. Throughout, researchers kept watch on their blood pressure and other markers of cardiovascular health.
At the end of the study period, the so-called “MedDairy” diet won out: it significantly improved blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, mood and cognitive function compared to the oldschool low-fat diet.
“This study shows that the new MedDairy works better than a generic low-fat diet, ensuring better health outcomes for people at risk of cardiovascular disease,” Wade said in a statement.
Dairy fat spent many years as a dietary demon, but this is yet more research indicating moderate quantities are protective. A large study published in The Lancet this year indicated three or so servings of dairy a day was linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
“When it comes down to it, people want to be able to enjoy a colourful, tasty and nutritious diet,” Wade concluded. “And if you’re one of the thousands of people seeking to improve your cardiovascular and cognitive health – look no further than the MedDairy diet.”