Eating plenty of vegetables, nuts and olive oil is more effective than drugs such as statins in treating heart disease, an ?extraordinary? study suggests.
Patients who stuck to a Mediterranean diet were a third less likely to die early than those who preferred red meat and butter, Italian researchers found. As the findings were reported, the national health service (NHS) in Britain was urged to subsidise fruit and vegetables and start prescribing healthy eating to millions of people with heart trouble.
A diet rich in fish and fruit has long been known to be good for the heart, but the latest results are the first to show that Mediterranean eating patterns could prevent deaths, even in those who are already ill.
Giovanni de Gaetano, of the IRCCS Neuromed Institute in Pozzilli, central Italy, the study?s senior author, said: ?So far research has focused on the general population, which is mainly composed of healthy people. What happens to people who have already suffered from cardiovascular disease? Is the Mediterranean diet optimal for them too??
His study answered this question with a resounding ?yes? after looking at 1,200 people with a history of heart attacks, strokes and blocked arteries. Over seven years, 208 patients died but the closer people were to an ideal Mediterranean diet the less likely they were to be among the fatalities.
Those who ate mainly along Mediterranean lines were 37 per cent less likely to die during the study than those who were furthest from them, after adjusting for age, sex, class, exercise and other habits, Professor de Gaetano told the European Society of Cardiology congress in Rome yesterday.
?Doctors should inquire about the dietary habits of patients and of course they will continue to prescribe drugs such as statins, aspirin or whatever, but we can?t look at drugs as the only way of [saving lives],? he said.
Professor de Gaetano said that it did not make sense that the NHS would pay for drugs but not for healthy food and that government should find a way to ?contribute to the expense of the Mediterranean diet?.
Sir David Nicholson, former chief executive of the NHS, said last month that he had stopped taking cholesterol-lowering statins over fears of side-effects and was relying on diet and exercise. ?If a lifestyle change works then why would you take the statin?? he said.
Professor de Gaetano said that many of the patients he studied would have been taking drugs such as statins. He insisted his findings meant that having a better diet as well as taking pills could bring an even bigger benefit. The researchers were sure that the results were not due to the patients taking statins because the study controlled for cholesterol-lowering treatment.
Aseem Malhotra, a British cardiologist, said: ?The Mediterranean diet is more powerful than any drug at reducing death rates in cardiovascular disease ? It?s time for the NHS to embrace lifestyle medicine to rapidly save it from the collapse being predominantly driven by diet-related disease.?