A Mediterranean diet is more protective against heart disease than exercise, a new study has revealed.
Those who stuck to the diet, consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, olive oil, fish and even a glass of red wine were 47 per cent less likely to develop heart disease over a 10 year period.
The study, from Harokopio University in Athens, is the first to track 10-year heart disease risk in a general population.
Most previous studies have focused on middle-aged people.
The study, presented at the American College of Cardiology's annual conference, is based on data from a representative sample of more than 2,500 Greek adults,
Aged between 18 to 89, they provided researchers with health information on themselves each year from 2001 to 2012.
Nearly one in five of the men and 12 per cent of the women developed or died from heart disease, including stroke, coronary heart disease and heart attack.
The researchers scored participants' diets on a scale from 1 to 55 based on their self-reported frequency and level of intake from 11 food groups.
Those who scored in the top-third in terms of adherence to the Mediterranean diet were 47 percent less likely to develop heart disease over the 10-year follow-up period (compared to participants who scored in the bottom-third).
Each one-point increase in the dietary score was associated with a three percent drop in heart disease risk.
This difference was independent of other heart disease risk factors including age, gender, family history, education level, body mass index, smoking habits, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Women tended to follow the Mediterranean diet more closely than men, the researchers noted.
Study author, Professor Demosthenes Panagiotakos, said: "Our study shows the Mediterranean diet is a beneficial intervention for all types of people in both genders, in all age groups, and in both healthy people and those with health conditions.
"Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was more protective than physical activity.
"It also reveals the Mediterranean diet has direct benefits for heart health, in addition to its indirect benefits in managing diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and inflammation.
"Because the Mediterranean diet is based on food groups that are quite common or easy to find, people around the world could easily adopt this dietary pattern and help protect themselves against heart disease with very little cost."
The researchers admitted that because the study was limited to Greeks living in the Athens area it might not reflect the health patterns of other countries.
But they did point out that urbanised Greeks were eating a more western diet, similar to that of Americans.
The analysis also confirmed results of previous studies indicating that male gender, older age, diabetes and a measure of inflammation are associated with an increased risk for heart disease.
Earlier research has shown that following the traditional Mediterranean diet is linked to weight loss, reduced risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure and lower blood cholesterol levels, in addition to reduced risk of heart disease.
- Daily Mail