Research published in May 2018 does suggest that the Mediterranean Diet can help lower some of the detrimental effects of air pollution, including risks of cardiovascular disease and the chances of dying from a heart attack. Earlier findings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggested that dietary supplements with anti-inflammatory or antioxidant activity have the potential to protect against the health risks air-pollution presents to people with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
The latest study, from New York University School of Medicine, found that people who most closely adhered to the Mediterranean diet had lower health risks despite exposure to certain air pollutants than those who didn’t follow the diet as closely. As you may know, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, unrefined cereals, olive oil, fermented dairy products (yogurt and natural cheeses), and fresh fish. While it doesn’t eliminate red meat, it limits consumption to about one meal a month. Poultry, eggs and sweets are permitted but are eaten only about once a week. Moderate amounts of wine, especially red wine, are part of the diet.
The NYU researchers followed 548,699 people from six states (California, North Carolina, New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania) and two cities (Atlanta and Detroit) for more than 17 years. The average age of the participants at enrollment was 62. During the 17 years, 126,835 of them died.
The researchers looked at how well the participants adhered to the Mediterranean Diet as well as the extent of their exposure to air pollutants, including fine particulate matter, nitrous oxide and ozone. Here’s what they found:
- Deaths from all causes: These rose by five percent for every 10 parts per billion increase in long-term average exposure to nitrous oxide among those participants who were least adherent to the Mediterranean diet. Among the most adherent, deaths from all causes increased by two percent for the same level of exposure.
- Deaths from cardiovascular disease: For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter, cardiovascular disease deaths rose by 17 percent among those least adherent to the diet, compared to 5 percent among the most adherent. For every increase of 10 parts per billion in exposure to nitrous oxide, cardiovascular deaths rose by 10 percent in the least adherent compared to only two percent in the most adherent.
- Deaths from heart attack: For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in exposure to fine particulate matter these deaths rose by 20 percent among the least adherent compared to 5 percent among the most adherent. And for every single part per billion increase in exposure to nitrous oxide, heart attack deaths rose by 12 percent in the least adherent compared to 4 percent in the most adherent.
The diet did not appear to protect against the harmful health effects of long-term exposure to ozone.
Senior study author George Thurston, Sc.D. noted that the results are consistent with the hypothesis that air pollution adversely affects health by inducing oxidative stress and inflammation. The Mediterranean diet is rich in foods with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Chris Lim et al, “Mediterranean diet may blunt air pollution’s ill health effects.” Presentation at American Thoracic Society 2018 International Conference, May 21, 2018, San Diego, CA