Doctors have long recommended a Mediterranean diet as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Now, a new study offers fresh evidence that eating this way can help women in particular to lower their risk of developing cardiovascular disease or dying young. For the analysis, researchers extracted data on more than 720,000 female participants in 16 previously published studies examining the connection between heart disease and diet. Women who most closely followed a Mediterranean-style diet were 24 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases and 23 percent less likely to die prematurely from any cause, according to study results published in the journal Heart. “There’s no ‘one-diet-fits-all,’ but there are key heart-friendly foods and nutrients that may make the Mediterranean diet particularly beneficial to help reduce the risk of future cardiovascular events,” says senior study author Sarah Zaman, MBBS, PhD, an academic interventional cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Diet plays a huge role in preventing cardiovascular events and early deaths,” Dr. Zaman adds. “Poor diet is linked with many lifestyle-related risk factors of heart disease like obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, and these can all substantially increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.” The Mediterranean Diet Has Heart Benefits for Women of All Races A Mediterranean diet also appeared to have a similarly protective effect for women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. When researchers looked at studies of mostly white European women, a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 24 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease events, compared with a 21 percent lower risk in studies of women from other parts of the world with different racial or ethnic backgrounds. One limitation of the study is that the smaller studies included in the analysis relied on self-reported eating habits, making it possible that people didn’t accurately recall or report on how closely they followed a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, the study team notes. “These studies are observational in nature and therefore it may not just be the diet, but other things the women were doing that made them less likely to have cardiovascular events,” says Michal Melamed, MD, a professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the new study. Still, the findings are in line with other diet research, Dr. Melamed says. And the results are also in line with recommendations from the American Heart Association that endorse a Mediterranean diet as a heart-healthy eating pattern that can reduce the risk of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease. What Is the Mediterranean Diet? Hallmarks of a Mediterranean diet include: lots of whole fruits and vegetables whole grains nuts and legumes healthy fats like olive oil regular consumption of fish and seafood moderate consumption of dairy products like cheese and yogurt little or no consumption of red and processed meats Eating a heart-healthy diet like this is especially important for women after menopause, when the risk of cardiovascular disease increases, says Frank Hu, MD, PhD, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “But there’s no single magic bullet for cardiovascular disease prevention,” he says. Dr. Hu, wasn’t involved in the new study. Even Small Shifts Toward Plant-Based Eating Can Make a Difference Every little bit helps, however, and people who aren’t ready to give up red meat or eat a mostly plant-based diet can still see heart health benefits from making small changes to their eating habits, Hu says. He recommends these changes as a good starting place: Replace animal fats with extra virgin olive oil. Eat whole-grain versions of bread, pasta, or rice instead of white bread or heavily processed grains. Drink unsweetened tea, coffee, or water instead of sugary beverages. Eat more seafood and lean protein instead of red and processed meat. “Although it may not be feasible to make all these changes overnight for most people, small gradual changes over time can still make a big difference in improving one’s diet quality and cardiometabolic health in the long run,” Hu says. How Can You Maintain Good Heart Health? Beyond what people eat, how much they eat also matters for heart health, says Cheryl Anderson, PhD, a professor and dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at the University of California in San Diego. Even with a healthy eating pattern like the Mediterranean diet, getting a healthy number of calories – and not too much – is important to maintain a healthy weight and get the most health benefits, says Anderson, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “More specifically, eating foods in a healthful pattern can help people maintain a healthy weight, and healthy levels of blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood lipids [cholesterol],” Anderson says.