(CN) – The widely touted health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet comes with a surprising caveat – it works best if you’re rich.
A study conducted by Italian researchers and published Monday in the International Journal of Epidemiology showed reductions in cardiovascular disease and other benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are strongly influenced by one’s place on the socioeconomic ladder.
“A person from low socioeconomic status who struggles to follow a Mediterranean model is unlikely to get the same advantages of a person with higher income, despite the fact that they both similarly adhere to the same healthy diet,” said lead author Marialaura Bonaccio, researcher at the Italian I.R.C.C.S. Neuromed Department of Epidemiology and Prevention.
The Mediterranean Diet is a nutritional program based on the dietary habits of people living in Southern Italy, Greece, France and Spain. It characterized by moderate consumption of dairy products like cheese and yogurt, moderate consumption of fish and lots of olive oil, legumes, cereals, fruits and vegetables. The diet also calls for low consumption of non-fish meats.
Multiple double-blind scientific studies have furnished evidence that following the diet reduces the risks of heart-related diseases and premature death. Other evidence links olive oil consumption to reduction in risks associated with cancer, neurodegenerative disease and other chronic illnesses.
But the most recent study, involving more than 18,000 subjects, found those benefits only accrue for the wealthy and advantaged in society.
“Given a comparable adherence to the Mediterranean diet, the most advantaged groups were more likely to report a larger number of indices of high quality diet as opposed to people with low socioeconomic status,” said Licia Iacoviello, Nuromed’s head of the laboratory of nutritional and molecular epidemiology.
The reason for the divergence in health outcomes is attributed to wealthier people’s access to diversity of fruits and vegetables. Other factors, such as type of cereal grains and how the food is prepared and cooked, can also be attributed to socioeconomic differences.
“These substantial differences in consuming products belonging to the Mediterranean Diet lead us to think that quality of foods may be as important for health as quantity and frequency of intake,” Iacoviello said.
The researchers say they hope the study will help focus health care providers’ and public policymakers’ attention on the social factors of food access and dietary habits, rather than simply on the science of caloric intake and identifying healthy versus unhealthy food choices.
“We cannot keep on saying that the Mediterranean Diet is good for health if we are not able to guarantee an equal access to it,” said Giovanni de Gaetano, a study co-author.