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The Mediterranean diet: A look back at one VA group's contribution

April 28, 2014

Dr. Scott Grundy, seen here in a 2001 photo, is a longtime nutrition researcher with VA and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. (Photo by David Gresham)

Dr. Scott Grundy, seen here in a 2001 photo, is a longtime nutrition researcher with VA and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. (Photo by David Gresham)

May is National Mediterranean Diet Month, a time to focus attention on a way of eating that has consistently been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic ailments. VA researcher Dr. Scott Grundy is among many in VA who have studied the topic. VA Research Currents asked him to take a look back at one of his group's early studies in the area, and to comment on its relevance today. Grundy is chief of diabetes and metabolic diseases at the Dallas VA Medical Center. He also directs the Center for Human Nutrition and the Clinical and Translational Research Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and is a distinguished professor of internal medicine at the university.

1988 study

Title: Comparison of monounsaturated fatty acids and carbohydrates for reducing raised levels of plasma cholesterol in man
Journal: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (June 1988)
Authors: Grundy, SM, Florentin, L, Nix, D, Whelan, MF
VA site: Bonham, TX (near Dallas)
What was studied: The authors tested three different diets, with different combinations of fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates, on 10 men for six weeks to see the effects on their blood cholesterol levels.
What was learned: A diet rich in monounsaturated fat— the type found in olive oil—was superior to a low-fat diet because while both reduced overall cholesterol and LDL (so-called "bad") cholesterol, the monounsaturated fats did not reduce HDL ("good") cholesterol.

2014 view:

"In the late 1980s we carried out a series of studies with monounsaturated fats that involved VA patients [including two that were published in the New England Journal of Medicine]. Prior to these studies, there was little interest in monounsaturated fats. These studies showed that monounsaturated fats are as good as polyunsaturated fats for lowering cholesterol levels, and they are potentially safer. They had a major impact on nutrition and thinking about the importance of monounsaturated fats for the diets of Americans and people in other countries. This led to a resurgence in interest in olive oil as a safe fat. It also increased interest in the Mediterranean diet as a healthy diet. There is no doubt that these studies opened a new field for nutrition. I checked Pubmed for clinical trials and meta-analyses with monounsaturated fats and found about 2,600 publications. This is just one indicator of the interest generated in the nutrition community by our early studies. I don't want to overstate their importance, but I believe these studies were quite impactful."

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