Not only can eating a Mediterranean diet lower your risk of heart-related disease and even help you live longer, it could also improve food security among people who rely on food banks for groceries, a new study suggests.
Researchers from The Miriam Hospital and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank found that people educated about how to eat, cook and abide by the Mediterranean diet experienced decreases in their grocery bills, decreases in their reliance on the food pantry, and increases in their produce consumption.
"Our results also suggest that including a few plant-based meals per week is an attainable goal that will not only improve their health and diet, but also lower their food costs," study researcher Mary Flynn, Ph.D., RD, LDN, a research dietitian at Miriam Hospital, said in a statement.
The study, published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, included 83 people from low-income housing sites and relied on emergency food pantries, 63 of whom successfully completed the study. The study included taking cooking classes to learn how to cook meals that are part of the Mediterranean diet (as well taking home grocery bags filled with Mediterranean diet foods during each week of the class), and then being followed for six months to see what kinds of foods they were spending money on.
Researchers found that throughout the six months, the study participants bought fewer and fewer sodas, desserts, snacks and meat, and more and more vegetables and fruits. They also lost weight throughout the six-month period (even though weight loss wasn't one of the goals of the study), researchers reported.
And "not only did study participants cut their food spending by more than half, saving nearly $40 per week, we also found that the reliance on a food pantry decreased as well, from 68 percent at the start of the study to 54 percent, demonstrating a clear decline in food insecurity," Flynn said in the statement.
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1. Ornish Diet
Dieters are sure to do their heart a favor on <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/ornish-diet">the Ornish diet</a>, according to experts, and if they use a rigorous version of the plan they could actually reverse heart disease. But the balanced, sound menu promotes heart health only <em>if</em> -- experts emphasized if -- the diet's rules are followed.
2. TLC Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/tlc-diet">The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet</a> helps keep cardiovascular disease at bay, according to experts who reviewed the research. Following the diet should bring down blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels, for example.
3. DASH Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/dash-diet">The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension program, or DASH</a>, was devised to help control high blood pressure, and its effects on that marker of cardiovascular health have been extensively studied. So it's no surprise that experts regarded it as a good diet for the heart.
4. Mediterranean Diet
Lots of research has validated <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/mediterranean-diet">the Mediterranean diet's</a> ability to prevent cardiovascular disease because of its emphasis on produce, monounsaturated fats, and protein from fish, with only a small amount from red meat.
5. Engine 2 Diet
The <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/engine-2-diet">Engine 2 diet</a> earned 3.9 stars, and experts were impressed with its positive affect on heart health. Following this low-fat, vegan plan should help keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay.
5. Vegan Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/vegan-diet">Veganism</a> earned high marks for its potential to boost cardiovascular health. It emphasizes the right foods -- fruits, veggies and whole grains -- while steering dieters away from salty, processed choices.
7. Flexitarian Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/flexitarian-diet">The Flexitarian diet</a> earned an above-average score, which means it has the potential to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Research suggests that eating patterns heavy on fruits, veggies, and whole grains help promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
8. Anti-Inflammatory Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/anti-inflammatory-diet">The Anti-Inflammatory diet</a>, which is based on the heart-healthy principles of the Mediterranean diet, earned an above-average 3.6 stars. It emphasizes the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish and have been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
8. Mayo Clinic Diet
Experts saw <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/mayo-clinic-diet">the Mayo Clinic Diet</a> as a sound option for preventing or controlling heart problems. Its focus is on coaching dieters to develop healthy, lasting habits around which foods they choose to eat and which to avoid.
8. Vegetarian Diet
A <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/vegetarian-diet">vegetarian diet</a> has the potential to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to experts, as long as vegetarians don't load up on full-fat dairy and processed foods. It's a good bet for heart-conscious dieters, especially those who don't have the heart to eat animals anyway.
11. Biggest Loser Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/biggest-loser-diet">The Biggest Loser diet</a> scored above average in the heart category. It mirrors the medical community's consensus about what makes a heart-healthy plan. It's heavy on fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, and light on saturated fat and added sugar. And exercise is integral to the program, not an add-on.
11. Volumetrics Diet
Research indicates <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/volumetrics-diet">Volumetrics</a> can improve cardiovascular health, and the diet reflects the essence of a heart-healthy approach to eating: It's heavy on fruits, veggies and whole grains, and light on saturated fat and salt.
13. Weight Watchers Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/weight-watchers-diet">Weight Watchers</a> is a healthy diet for the heart, according to experts, but it's not as strong in this area as it is for weight loss. Some evidence suggests it helps lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, potentially warding off heart problems. And weight loss can help prevent heart disease.
14. Eco-Atkins Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/eco-atkins-diet">Eco-Atkins</a> performed moderately well when experts evaluated it as a diet for the heart. Research supports their view. One study, for example, found that those who followed the diet had a 23 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than those who opted for a low-carb diet heavy on meat.
14. Traditional Asian Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/traditional-asian-diet">The Asian diet</a> received a moderate 3 out of 5 stars. Little research connects it to cardiovascular benefits but on the plus side, the eating pattern is low in saturated fat and high in fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and rice.
16. Flat Belly Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/flat-belly-diet">The Flat Belly diet</a> is a moderately effective choice for managing or preventing heart disease, our experts concluded. The plan emphasizes monounsaturated fatty acids, which research suggests are good for the heart. Plus, dieters could benefit if Flat Belly delivers on its promise to whittle down belly fat -- a risk factor for heart disease.
16. Jenny Craig
Experts weren't impressed by research suggesting that <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/jenny-craig-diet">Jenny Craig</a> might improve blood pressure, and deemed it only moderately effective for preventing or reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, Jenny has been found to deliver weight loss, and that could lead to improved heart health.
16. Macrobiotic Diet
The <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/macrobiotic-diet">macrobiotic</a> approach received modest ratings as a heart program. Some research suggests positive effects on levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, but panelists were not persuaded.
19. South Beach Diet
Although it was designed as a heart-healthy diet to reduce levels of fat in the blood, <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/south-beach-diet">the South Beach Diet</a> didn't make the grade with our experts. But just losing weight helps ward off chronic diseases, including heart problems -- so South Beach could have a positive effect.
20. Raw Food Diet
Assessing it solely as a heart diet, the experts gave <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/raw-food-diet">the raw food diet</a> largely lackluster scores, indicating the absence of research showing cardiovascular benefits. However, it's heavy on fruits and veggies and light on saturated fat and salt, which can help keep heart disease at bay.
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/slim-fast-diet">Slim-Fast</a> wasn't designed as a heart-healthy diet, and while it shouldn't increase your risk of cardiovascular problems, it's unlikely to prevent them, either. The diet received lower marks for heart health than for any other measure the experts evaluated.
20. Zone Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/zone-diet">The Zone Diet</a> received mediocre reviews from experts as a diet for heart health. Still, some research suggests it might help lower LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
23. Abs Diet
<a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/abs-diet">The Abs diet</a> landed in the bottom third on this list, with 2.7 out of 5 stars. Research is lacking, so experts questioned its ability to prevent or manage heart disease. Still, the plan's emphasis on fruits, veggies and whole grains is a positive factor.
Although some research suggests <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/medifast-diet">Medifast</a> may benefit heart health, experts who rated the diet weren't overly enthusiastic. Their ratings placed Medifast toward the bottom of this ranking.
The experts gave <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/nutrisystem-diet">Nutrisystem</a> some of its lowest scores in judging it as a diet to prevent cardiovascular disease or other heart problems.
26. Glycemic-Index Diet
In the absence of convincing research on the <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/glycemic-index-diet">glycemic-index diet's</a> purported cardiovascular benefits, experts gave it low scores as a heart-health tool.
27. Atkins Diet
The experts were concerned about the diet's fat-heavy menu and judged it accordingly. Although <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/atkins-diet">Atkins</a> scored decently in weight loss, and losing weight can reduce the risk of many heart problems, experts want to see stronger long-term research before accepting the diet's potential heart benefits.
28. Paleo Diet
The <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/paleo-diet">Paleo diet</a> is unlikely to help prevent or manage cardiovascular disease, our expert panel concluded. Most panelists, in fact, felt that evidence of any health benefit was lacking.
29. Dukan Diet
The <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/dukan-diet">Dukan diet</a> came in dead last in the heart-health category, with experts ranking it short of minimally effective. Don't expect it to have a positive effect. "Long-term research" is needed to suss out any potential benefits, according to one expert.