If you’ve tried to eat healthy, you’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet. This food regimen is incredibly popular and for good reason—it’s billed as a simple, tested, and effective diet that doesn’t require a calorie counting, juicing, or any fancy tricks. Unfortunately, a new study has poked a few holes in the supposed effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in reducing your risk of heart disease.
In 2013, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found people on a Mediterranean diet had a 30% reduced chance of heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular disease than people on a comparable low-fat diet. The study thrilled health researchers, who used the data in thousands of other papers. Eating like a tanned citizen of Italy or Greece held a lot of appeal for people and seemed to offer a tasty diet that had tangible health benefits with few real sacrifices.
Big problem…the study has since been retracted and revised by the original author, Dr. Martínez González, after a statistician pointed out a major flaw in the study’s supposedly random participants. The study was supposed to be random, the gold standard in health science, to test whether or not the diet was the real source of any significant findings and not any other factor in their lives. But 14% of the 7,500 participants were not chosen at random; instead, family members involved in the study often shared the same diet. It’s a subtle mistake, but has a few undeniable results.
Dr. González and his team spent a year reanalyzing the data and corroborating their results with other experts. The result? The study’s overall findings are still solid: there is a correlation between eating a traditional Mediterranean diet and improved health. The only caveat? The study does not prove that the diet itself is the cause of any reduced risk of heart disease and death. Instead, other factors (like lifestyle or genetics) might be the real cause.
This is big news for health science, but what does that mean for you and me? Well, this doesn’t mean that the Mediterranean diet is off the table. Participants can still feel better and lose weight; cutting out unhealthy foods can, ultimately, still lower your risk of heart disease. The principles identified behind the Mediterranean diet—plant-based foods, lean proteins, healthy oils, fresh fruit and vegetables—are still sound. But, like all nutritional science, there’s no silver bullet.
Maybe we should all try living like we’re in the Mediterranean, relaxing, hitting the beach, and getting some sun? Can’t hurt.