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Mediterranean diet is the way to go

The kingpin diet of the “let’s not get a heart attack” program is the Mediterranean diet.

For years we’ve told people to follow a low-fat diet. Have you ever tried to do it? I don’t mean reducing your fat, I mean really reducing your fat. It stinks.

If you eat something you shouldn’t, it’s a cardinal sin. You feel bad about it, sheepish. Yet this diet still pervades the medical establishment as something that should be followed by everyone prone to heart disease.

I disagree. I think the king of diets is clearly the Mediterranean diet – it’s one we should embrace as a society. Out with red meat, in with poultry and fish. Add legumes, nuts and olive oil.

I’ve presented the landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last March to prove my hypothesis.

Researchers took 7,500 men and women who were at risk for heart disease – diabetics, smokers, obese people, non-exercisers – the ones you’d expect to have a heart attack. Not one of them knew they had heart disease when the study began.

Bottom line first: Those who followed an enriched Mediterranean diet had 30 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes than the low-fat diet people. What did they consume?

• Four tablespoons of olive oil a day.

• Four ounces, about a handful, of tree nuts such as cashews, walnuts and pecans. Peanuts didn’t count.

• Three servings of fruits and two servings of vegetables every day.

• Three times a week, they ate good-fat fish such as salmon, herring (I was happy to hear that), sardines and catfish.

• Every week, they also ate three servings of legumes such as beans, lentils and peanuts.

• They cut down on red meat and accentuated poultry.

• And those who could had a glass of wine with meals.

Here’s what they ate less: pastries, sweet rolls, cakes, sodas, margarine, sausage – all of which are mainstays in a typical American diet.

Now, why was the low-fat diet worthless? Because people didn’t follow it. In the second part of the study, the researchers took those on the low-fat diet and gave them extra education. No luck. They still didn’t follow it.

No matter how much the dieters in the low-fat group were encouraged to follow orders, they sinned. They strayed.

That diet, by the way, included: low-fat dairy products, five servings of fruits and vegetables, lean fish such as cod, plus three servings a day of bread, pasta and rice. More chicken and less red meat. But no nuts or oil of any kind.

My spin: The Mediterranean diet is superior to the low-fat diet because it’s more satisfying.

Savoring good food is one of the pleasures of life. Loading up on the extra-virgin olive oil, eating more beans, baking more salmon, snacking on more nuts and enjoying a toast to your loved ones is so luscious. Why not enjoy life while you’re preventing heart disease?

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email questions to him at