Nuts, a lot of olive oil, and plenty of wine — these don’t sound like the austere components we usually associate with a healthy diet. But a study released Feb. 25 by the New England Journal of Medicine has found that these ostensible indulgences contribute to slashing the risk of heart disease.

According to the study, about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease — the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States — can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet. A Mediterranean diet is rich in the aforementioned nuts, olive oil and wine, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and fish; commercially made cookies, cakes and pastries should be avoided, and dairy products and processed meats should be limited.

For decades scientists have recognized that people from Mediterranean countries seemed to have lower rates of heart disease, but conclusive links to diet were never established since factors other than food could be at play. But the new study, by Dr. Ramon Estruch from the University of Barcelona and his colleagues, was designed as a major clinical trial to specifically measure the diet’s effect on heart risks.

The benefits were so clear that they surprised those conducting the study — so much that the researchers ended the study early since they felt it was unethical to continue.

“Really impressive,” said Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. “And the really important thing — the coolest thing — is that they used very meaningful endpoints. They did not look at risk factors like cholesterol or hypertension or weight. They looked at heart attacks and strokes and death. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.”

Others agree that the findings are significant because of the study's size and scientific rigor.

“Now along comes this group and does a gigantic study in Spain that says you can eat a nicely balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and olive oil and lower heart disease by 30 percent,” said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “And you can actually enjoy life.”

Mediterranean diet significantly lowers heart attack risk, study finds
Those following a Mediterranean diet were 30 percent less likely to have heart attacks and strokes.