Numerous studies have extolled the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Now, research suggests the regimen may also boost levels of beneficial fatty acids.
These so-called “short chain fatty acids” are produced by bacteria in the intestine during fermentation of insoluble fiber from fruits, vegetables and legumes. The fatty acids are believed to provide a number of health benefits, including a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and inflammatory diseases, an Italian team reports in the Sept. 29 issue of the journal Gut.
“We provide here tangible evidence of the impact of a healthy diet and a Mediterranean dietary pattern,” wrote the team led by Danilo Ercolini, a professor of microbiology at the University of Naples in Italy.
The study of 153 Italian adults found higher levels of short chain fatty acids in vegans, vegetarians and those who closely followed a Mediterranean diet. The diet includes large amounts of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and cereals; moderately high amounts of fish; low levels of saturated fat, red meat and diary products; and some alcohol.
Levels of short chain fatty acids can naturally vary with age and gender, but these findings suggest that eating a high-fiber diet does appear to boost their levels, Ercolini’s team said.
“Multiple studies have shown the benefits of the Mediterranean diet,” noted one U.S. expert, cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum.
The new research “shows that the benefits may occur through the GI (gastrointestinal) tract and the metabolites that are released during the digestive process,” she said.
The study also showed that vegans or vegetarians had relatively low levels of a compound called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), which has been linked to heart disease. Among non-vegetarians, people who adhered to the Mediterranean diet also had relatively low TMAO levels, the researchers said.
Another nutrition expert agreed that high-fiber vegetarian or Mediterranean diets offer real health benefits.
“The take-away message from this study is to head to your local farmers market, let the produce fill your plate and only use animal-based proteins as condiments,” said Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.
The American Heart Association has more about the Mediterranean diet.