Go Greek: Mediterranean Diet Helps Fight Diabetes Without Counting Calories

Older adults who ate a diet with extra-virgin olive oil saw the greatest risk reduction.

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Eating more like the Greeks may help you reduce your risk of developing diabetes, without counting calories, increasing exercise or losing weight, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

A group of Spanish researchers studied more than 3,500 men and women between the ages of 55 and 80, who were at a high risk of heart disease. The patients were randomly assigned to one of two modified Mediterranean diets -- supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or mixed nuts -- or a low-fat control diet. After four years, those on the Mediterranean diets had significantly reduced their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, compared with those in a control group.

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"Of note, this dietary pattern is palatable and has a high potential for long-term sustainability, with obvious public health implications for primary prevention of diabetes," the study says.

The Mediterranean diet relies heavily on fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, is low in dairy products and has been associated with a decreased risk for diabetes. But the researchers found supplementing the traditional diet helped further reduce that risk.

It has also been known that restricting calorie intake and losing weight can help prevent and control Type 2 diabetes -- which accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all diabetes cases -- but there has been little information on whether dietary changes without those restrictions can help prevent the disease, the researchers said.

Two types of "good fats" prevalent in the diet -- monounsaturated fats from olive oil and Omega-3 fatty acids -- help stabilize blood sugar and help with satiety, so people end up eating less later, says Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.

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"In the Mediterranean diet, people do end up eating less overall with it, so they probably will end up eating less calories," Young says. "But the nice thing about the Mediterranean diet is that it's high in fiber -- particularly soluble fiber, which is good for [combating] diabetes -- and nuts, which helps to stabilize the blood sugar."

The researchers also warned of the dangers of Type 2 diabetes, which can cause blindness, kidney failure and lower limb amputation and is associated with old age, among other things.

Those older adults who followed the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil saw the greatest risk reduction, at 40 percent. And although the other group following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts also saw a risk reduction, it was statistically insignificant, at 18 percent.

The number of people with Type 2 diabetes worldwide has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to the study, with nearly 347 million living with the disease in 2010.

As of 2010, about 8 percent of the United States population had been diagnosed with diabetes, with 1.9 million new cases diagnosed that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If that trend continues, the CDC estimates that by the year 2050, 1 in 3 U.S. adults will have diabetes.

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Young says one appealing aspect of the Mediterranean diet is that it focuses on eating healthy overall, rather than pushing a "fixation on weight loss."

"When people become so fixated on diet and weight loss, they don't lose weight," Young says. "When you are focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean animal protein ... and also enjoying your meal, I think that also helps not only for weight loss in the ultimate end, but it helps to stave off and fight disease."

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