Those who suffer from heart diseases should follow a 'Mediterranean' diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, fish and unrefined foods to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes, a new study has revealed. Researchers examined over 15,000 patients with stable coronary heart disease in 39 countries.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, showed that for every 100 people eating the highest proportion of healthy Mediterranean food, there were only three fewer heart attacks, strokes or deaths, compared to 100 people who ate the smallest quantity of healthy foods.

Participants were asked how many times a week they consumed servings from various food groups. Depending on their answers, a Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS) was assigned with more points to those who consumed increased quantity of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and legumes, while those who ate refined grains, sweets, desserts, sugared drinks and deep fried food were given a Western Diet Score.

After 3.7 years, 10.1% of the participants had suffered a major adverse cardiovascular event (Mace) – heart, stroke or death. Such events occurred in only 7.3% of those who consumed the highest proportion of Mediterranean diet, and 10.8% in those who ate the least quantity of the same diet.

The study also showed a Western diet score did not lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular events. "Greater consumption of foods thought to be less healthy and more typical of Western diets, was not associated with an increase in these adverse events, which we have not expected," Auckland City Hospital cardiologist professor Ralph Stewart, who led this study said.

"The research suggests we should place more emphasis on encouraging people with heart disease to eat more healthy foods, and perhaps focus less on avoiding unhealthy foods."

However, he warned that the study should not be taken for granted to eat unhealthy food. Including more fruits and vegetables in one's daily diet may seem to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes, but the benefit of this was not explained by risk factors such as good and bad cholesterol or blood pressure.

Although the authors did not report on saturated fat consumption, Auckland University's heart researcher, professor Rod Jackson said: "The findings are quite consistent with the standard diet-heart hypothesis. A Mediterranean diet is low in saturated fat and was associated with lower risk of CHD [coronary heart disease]."