Eating a Mediterranean diet appears to lower your risk of heart attack, cancer and other diseases. A recent study isn't the first to show this, but it may be the largest.

What's a Mediterranean diet? It's a diet that's rich in grain, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and includes a moderate amount of red wine. It's also low in meat, dairy products and other alcoholic beverages. This is thought to reflect the way people in the Mediterranean region have been eating for centuries.

Participants who ate a strict Mediterranean diet had a 9% lower overall mortality rate, 9% fewer cardiovascular deaths, [and] 6% less cancers...

In this study, participants who ate a strict Mediterranean diet had a 9% lower overall mortality rate, 9% fewer cardiovascular deaths, 6% less cancers, and 13% fewer cases of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

The study was done by a team headed by Dr. Francesco Sofi, from the Department of Medical and Surgical Critical Area at the Thrombosis Centre at the University of Florence, Italy. The team didn't conduct their own study, but instead looked at the results of previous studies. It analyzed data from over 1.5 million people who had participated in twelve separate international dietary studies, ranging from three to eighteen years in duration. The findings were published in the September 11, 2008 online edition of the British Medical Journal.

In studies where people report what they have eaten, there's always the possibility that the occasional bowl of praline marshmallow fudge ice cream gets forgotten. This definitely is not part of a typical Mediterranean diet. That's one reason why the large number of subjects here is so important. It minimizes the impact of people with poor memories.

Are the observed health benefits due to substances present in the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet or do they come from avoiding something harmful in a typical Western diet? So far, no one knows for sure. They're working on it.

While the study focused specifically on the Mediterranean diet, previous studies suggest that other regional diets may confer similar benefits. Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University Medical Center explains: "Virtually all studies of diet and health overlap in demonstrating the benefits of eating more plant foods, and more foods closer to nature — and less highly processed foods. The Mediterranean diet is one example of such a dietary pattern, but not the only one. We may learn as research continues which among several good dietary patterns the best is."

Changing dietary habits can be difficult. If you can't totally switch over to this type of diet, maybe you can meet it halfway.