Many health care professionals suggest the Mediterranean diet for anyone looking to lower their risk of heart disease, but how can specific lifestyle interventions affect other chronic illnesses? A recent study funded by the Instituto de Salud Carlos III in Spain revealed that switching to a Mediterranean diet rich in extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) can significantly reduce an older patient’s risk of developing diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 8.3 percent of the population in the United States, 25.8 million children and adults, are currently living with diabetes. Experts rank healthy eating as one of the most important steps in preventing diabetes and subsequent medical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, and amputation. People at risk to diabetes should also add moderate levels of physical activity to their daily routine, consider quitting smoking, and monitor what goes into their body such as calories, sugar, fat, and cholesterol.

A research team led by Dr. Jordi Salas-Salvado from Rovira i Virgili University and the Hospital de Sant Joan de Reus in Spain recruited 3,541 patients between the ages of 55 and 80 who had not been diagnosed with diabetes, but did suffer from cardiovascular risk. Each patient was assigned to one of three diets including one Mediterranean diet high in EVOO, a second Mediterranean diet high in mixed nut, and a control diet low in fat. Participants were not asked to increase the amount of exercise they took in each day or practice any other interventions aimed at managing weight loss.

When researchers asked surviving patients to participate in a follow up exam four years after the start, 273 had developed diabetes including 101 participants who were assigned to the low-fat control diet, 92 participants assigned to the Mediterranean diet with mixed nuts, and 80 participants assigned the Mediterranean diet rich in EVOO. People who were randomly assigned to the Mediterranean diet rich in EVOO were able to lower their risk of developing diabetes by 40 percent compared to the other groups.

"Randomized trials have shown that lifestyle interventions promoting weight loss can reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes, however, whether dietary changes without calorie restriction or increased physical activity also protect from diabetes development has not been evaluated in the past," Dr. Salvado told Reuters Health. "These benefits have been observed in participants between 55 to 80 years old at high cardiovascular risk. Therefore, the message is that it is never too late to switch to a healthy diet like the Mediterranean."

The Mediterranean diet’s basics include plant-based food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, a switch from butter to EVOO, herbs and spices instead of salt, fish and poultry, limit on red meat, and red wine in moderation. Researchers from this study speculate that EVOO is so successful in lowering a person’s risk of diabetes because of its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that improve glycemic control. Dr. Salvado recommends switching any type of fat in our diet with at least two tablespoons of EVOO each day.