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A UNC research study recently published in BMC Public Health shows that incorporating a Mediterranean-style diet is likely to facilitate weight loss and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Heart Healthy Lenoir study was conducted in Lenoir County in eastern North Carolina and focused on developing healthy dietary, physical activity and weight loss strategies to improve cardiovascular health. Dr. Thomas Keyserling, MD, MPH, in the UNC School of Medicine and research fellow at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention led the lifestyle and diet portion of the study.

Keyserling and his team encouraged project participants to focus on eating foods with healthy fats regularly instead of focusing on a low fat diet. They asked participants to eat more nuts, vegetable oils and fish as part of a Mediterranean-style diet. In addition, the diet also promoted regularly consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grain products and beans.

Among study participants who returned for their 6-month follow-up visit, compared to baseline there was a reduction in systolic blood – of 6.4 mmHg and a reduction in diastolic blood pressure was -3.7 mmHg. In addition, though weight loss was not an objective during the first 6 months of this project, average weight loss was 0.7 kg on the fat unrestricted diet.

The Heart Healthy Lenoir diet was well received in the community because it didn’t require participants to give up many of the foods they already enjoyed. For example, the study promoted full fat salad dressing and mayonnaise, as there products are made of heathy vegetable oils as opposed to the low or no fat versions which have higher salt content and high fructose corn syrup, a poor quality carbohydrate. In addition, fried foods were considered acceptable as long as non-trans fat vegetable oil was used for frying.

“A major goal of the research study was to develop an intervention that would be similarly effective among minority and non-minority participants in order to decrease health disparities. As a whole, both lifestyle and physiologic outcomes were similar by race. However, there was a trend showing greater reduction for systolic blood pressure among African American participants.”

“As African Americans typically have higher blood pressure, it was promising to see a greater reduction in blood pressure within this subgroup of study participants.”

The study concludes that a large majority of the participants reported substantial improvement in dietary intake and a meaningful percentage lost weight and maintained weight loss. Equally important were the findings that as lifestyle and physiologic changes were similar for African American and white participants, the culturally tailored intervention has the potential to reduce both CVD risk as well as disparities in CVD rates.

Other members of the research team included Carmen D. Samuel-Hodge, Stephanie Jilcott Pitts, Beverly A. Garcia, Larry F. Johnston, Ziya Gizlice, Cassandra L. Miller, Danielle F. Braxton, Kelly R. Evenson, Janice C. Smith, Gwen B. Davis, Emmanuelle L. Quenum, Nadya T. Majette Elliott, Myron D. Gross, Katrina E. Donahue, Jacqueline R. Halladay and Alice S. Ammerman.

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