Heart Disease, Genetics and the Mediterranean Diet

Editor’s note: Pending an FDA decision, 23andMe no longer offers new customers access to health reports referred to in this post. Customers who purchased prior to November 22, 2013 will still be able to see their health reports, but those who purchased after that time will not. Those customers will have access to ancestry information as well as access to their uninterpreted raw data.

Your diet has a huge impact on your health, particularly influencing your risk for things like heart disease, the leading cause of death worldwide.

Your genetics equally contributes to your risk for heart disease the same as your diet, your environment and overall lifestyle does.

Understanding your risks can help you take the right actions to stay as healthy as you can. With heart disease, the simplest ways to reduce your risk is with diet and exercise. A recent Spanish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that changing what you eat may go a long way at protecting you from heart disease. The study suggests a Mediterranean diet — which is rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes, fish, olive oil and nuts — can significantly reduce the risk of death from heart attack or stroke in people at highest risk.

How Your Body Responds

A Mediterranean diet could ward off heart disease, but how does it effect whether you gain or lose weight?

Your genetics can influence how your body metabolizes and uses food. This  explains a bit about why some people have a much easier time losing weight than others.

The study gives hope. The researchers looked at more than 7,000 Spaniards who were overweight, smoked or had other conditions that put them at them at higher risk for heart disease. The participants ranged in age from 55 to about 80. Researchers at the University of Barcelona separated the participants into three groups, one on a Mediterranean diet, another group that were on a Mediterranean diet that included additional extra virgin olive oil, nuts, fish, vegetables, fruit and wine. And a third group that was simply advised to stay on a low-fat diet.

About five years into the work, the benefits of the Mediterranean diet were so strong — groups on the Mediterranean diets were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke — that the researchers stopped the study early.

While there are some caveats to the study, it strongly suggests a simple change in what you eat — independent of whether you lose weight or exercise — could significantly reduce your risk for heart disease. This is particularly good news for people who want to lower their risk but are having a hard time losing weight.

While the benefits for this high-risk, elderly population of Spaniards seems pretty clear, what is less clear is whether changing to a Mediterranean diet would offer the same benefits for everyone. Because the study specifically looked at people who were at high risk for heart disease, it’s unclear if diet alone can reduce heart disease risk in the general population, too. Unfortunately the study also didn’t look at how people with different genetics might respond to the diet changes. We know genetics has a strong influence on your risk for heart disease, but we don’t know if people with different genetics would respond differently to this diet.

Whether the benefits could apply to people who are at low risk is not yet known, but it probably couldn’t hurt to reduce the amount of sweets, saturated fats and processed foods in favor of a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables. The fact that the diet also includes a drink of wine with each meal is a nice bonus as well.


  • Altorfer

    There are two very important things of the mediterano kitchen, which leads to a higher lifexpancy: Chilli and garlic. My mother is Calabrese and I know what I’m speaking about!

    • Altorfer

      Threre is also something good for you, what you can drink in South Italy during summer: Latte di mandorla.

      • Quevedin

        Alse is right, “Chili” is not common at all in “Mediterranean” Diets (some mildly hot peppers like Pepperoncini or Padrón’s are popular in certain cuisines). Almond milk is great refresher, and also tigernut milk (“Horchata de chufa”).

        • Altorfer

          No medium hot peperoncini are used! Not mild peperonicini. Perhaps the Spaniards only use mild peperoncini, but in Calabria and Sizilia, medium hot chillis are used in food. Of course never so hot like habaneros or Bhut jolaka.

    • Alse

      I’m not quite sure where in the Mediterraneo chilli is used. I’m from Spain and at least there, chilli is an unknown ingredient.

      • Altorfer

        There is something very good for your fitness. It’s called Müesli. A Müesli is a swiss food for breakfast. Anyway the cultures from North Europe know how to eat breakfast correctly. South Europeans have no clue about a good breakfast. When I was in Calabria the last time I only got alltime croissant with jam in it. Awful!

        • Altorfer

          You also should know that the Italien have the highest mineral water consumption on the world.

    • Bill Martin

      The most important dietary contribution you can make to your health is very simply and easy. Eliminate all meat, poultry, fish and dairy products from consumption.

      The results are mind boggling. Stick with it for a year, and you will see no reason to go back. All of those things are far too rich and fatty for my personal preference at this time.

  • leeon

    Cardiovascular diseases are at the top of the most important reasons of chronic disease, invalidism, premature aging and dying. Cardiovascular problems can be effectively prevented or reversed with healthy way of living.

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