St. Paul’s Hospital in Canada to launch Mediterranean diet course for the public

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St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver is making plans to train hundreds, if not thousands, of people to eat according to the principles of the life-saving Mediterranean diet.

“Truly changing the way you eat is a massive undertaking,” said physician Andrew Ignaszewski, who is head of cardiology at the hospital. “For people with a northern European or Eastern European pedigree, the Mediterranean diet does not come naturally, the specifics are not intuitive and need to be taught.”

The course is likely to include educational seminars, group counselling and regular support sessions spread over at least a year, including shopping excursions and cooking instruction.

Buoyed by the stunning results of a rare long-term diet study conducted with almost 8,000 subjects in Spain, Ignaszewski and his colleagues felt they could help more than just their cardiac patients.

“There are 10 times more people at risk of cardiovascular disease than people who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease,” said Ignaszewski.

The study, published last year by the New England Journal of Medicine, placed healthy people at risk of cardiac disease into three groups: a simple low-fat diet, a relatively high-fat Mediterranean diet supplemented with large amounts of extra virgin olive oil, and a Mediterranean diet supplemented with large amounts of walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts.

Over five years, the two Mediterranean diet groups had a 30-per-cent lower chance of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular disease than people on the low-fat diet.

Such randomized control trial studies are rare and very difficult to execute over a long period of time, but the researchers met regularly with participants and even conducted urine and blood tests to ensure people were complying with the diet they were assigned.

“Cardiologists live and die by evidence based medicine and once in a while a study comes along that changes our practice,” said Ignaszewski, who called the effect produced by the researchers “huge.”

“This lifestyle change had the same effect on their relative risk as the most potent medications,” he said. Because the level of physical activity and subjects’ weight was unchanged across all three groups, what people ate was the critical factor, rather than weight loss or exercise.

Ignaszewski noted the irony that people in the low-fat control group, who had the worst health outcomes, were given the same advice that most cardiac patients receive in North America.

Low-fat diets designed to lower cholesterol — pushed by doctors and others for decades in North America — have also had the unfortunate side-effect of fuelling an epidemic of diabetes, he said.

Training people how to eat differently requires a long-term intervention, which is what the new course at St. Paul’s is designed to do.

It is not enough to tell people to eat more fish and legumes, olive oil and nuts. For every new food that is added, other foods must be eliminated, Ignaszewski said.

“You need to learn what to eat, day by day, three meals a day,” he said. “For the study subjects in Spain it was relatively easy, many of these things were already part of their diet, in North America it will be much tougher.”

St. Paul’s Hospital will host a free information session in late January for people who indicate their interest be emailing

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