It’s hardly a surprise anymore to read that consuming a diet rich in fish and chicken, fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and legumes — a Mediterranean diet — is a healthy lifestyle choice.

But a new study makes clear that whatever one’s age, gender or health status, sticking with the Mediterranean diet is the single most powerful step a person can take to drive down his or her heart disease risk.

In a 10-year study of 2,583 Greek adults, those who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet were nearly half as likely as those who followed it least to develop, or die from, heart disease.

The latest research is to be presented next week at the American College of Cardiology’s annual scientific session in San Diego.

The study population ranged in age from 18 to 89, and all were free of cardiovascular disease when enrolled in 2001-02. At the outset and after 10 years, the researchers solicited detailed accounts of participants’ consumption of 18 different food groups, and assigned each subject a rating between 1 and 55 reflecting his or her adherence to the principles of a Mediterranean diet.

Among men, 20 per cent developed or died of cardiovascular disease, and 12 per cent of women died during the 10-year period. Being male, older, having diabetes or having high levels of C-reactive proteins — a measure of inflammation — were the strongest predictors of who would be in that group.

Those in the top third of subjects in terms of Mediterranean diet adherence were 47 per cent less likely than those in the bottom third to be among those who developed cardiovascular disease. With each one-point increase in Mediterranean-diet-adherence score, a subject’s average risk of developing cardiovascular disease dropped by 3 per cent.

And the protective effects of eating like a traditional Greek were widely applicable too. After researchers took into account risk factors such as gender, age, family history of cardiovascular disease, body-mass index, education levels, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, the protective powers of the Mediterranean diet continued to show strongly.

Study co-author Ekavi Georgousopoulou of Harokopio University in Athens touted the Mediterranean diet as a heart disease prevention programme that is not only powerful but available to all. Given that its principal ingredients can be found in most any developed country, anyone “could easily adopt this dietary pattern and protect themselves against heart disease with very little cost,” he said.

— Los Angeles Times