What is the Atlantic diet and how does it stack up against the Mediterranean diet?

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Chances are, you’re familiar with the well-researched Mediterranean diet. And perhaps you’ve even heard of the Nordic and Okinawan diets.

These traditional eating patterns, based on local, fresh and minimally processed foods, have been tied to numerous health benefits and longevity.

You might not, however, be acquainted with the Atlantic diet, a cousin of the Mediterranean diet that’s attracting attention.

According to new research, following this dietary pattern can guard against metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that, when they appear together, dramatically raises the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. It’s estimated that one in five Canadian adults has metabolic syndrome.

Here’s a guide to the Atlantic diet and a breakdown of the latest study – plus how the Atlantic diet and Mediterranean diet compare.

What’s in the Atlantic diet?

The Atlantic diet, also called the South European Atlantic diet, is the traditional eating pattern of northwestern Spain and northern Portugal.

Daily foods include fruits and vegetables, potatoes, whole grain breads and cereals, nuts, dairy products and olive oil.

The diet also includes moderate amounts of fish and seafood, especially cod, beef, pork, poultry and eggs. Three to four servings of pulses (e.g., beans and lentils) are consumed each week.

Fatty meats, sweets and soft drinks are eaten sparingly, not more than monthly.

Soups and stews can often be found on an Atlantic diet menu.

Mineral water is consumed often during the day. Wine is consumed moderately, typically with meals.

The Atlantic diet study

The latest findings, published Feb. 7 in the journal JAMA Network Open, come from the GALIAT Study, a six-month randomized controlled trial that investigated the effect of the traditional Atlantic diet on metabolic health in families living in A Estrada, a town in northwestern Spain. (GALIAT stands for Galicia Atlantic Diet.)

The researchers studied 231 families, a total of 518 participants with an average age of 47.

Half the families were assigned to follow the traditional Atlantic diet and the remaining served as the control group.

Participants in the Atlantic diet group received educational sessions on how to modify their eating habits, a cooking class, written materials and a recipe book.

They also received free food baskets, delivered once every three weeks, that contained traditional Atlantic diet foods including turnip greens, cabbage, tomatoes, mussels, low fat cheese, olive oil and wine.

Control group participants were advised to maintain their usual lifestyle.

Among participants who did not have metabolic syndrome at the start of the study, after six months those who ate the Atlantic diet had a significantly lower risk of developing the syndrome compared with control group participants.

Participants were diagnosed with metabolic syndrome if they had three of the following five risk factors: 1) a waist circumference greater than 40 inches for men or greater than 34.5 inches for women, 2) elevated blood triglycerides (fats), 3) a low blood HDL (good) cholesterol, 4) elevated blood pressure and 5) a fasting blood glucose of 6.2 mmol/L or higher.

The Atlantic diet also reduced waist circumference and improved HDL cholesterol.

As well, compared to the control group, the Atlantic diet group was 42 per cent less likely to develop an additional risk factor for metabolic syndrome over the six months.

This isn’t the first study to credit the Atlantic diet with potential health benefits. Previous research has suggested that adhering to the eating pattern promotes weight loss, reduces LDL cholesterol and blood triglycerides, lowers blood pressure, dampens inflammation, improves insulin sensitivity and protects against heart attack and depression.

Strengths, limitations

A strong point was the study’s randomized design, which allowed it to assess cause and effect.

It’s possible, though, that unknown factors not measured influenced the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

All study participants were of Spanish or white European descent. Whether the Atlantic diet would benefit ethnic groups at increased risk for metabolic syndrome isn’t known.

Participants received free food baskets so the findings might not apply to groups with food access challenges.

The Mediterranean diet versus the Atlantic diet

A distinct difference between these two traditional diets revolves around red meat.

The Mediterranean diet treats red meat as a “sometimes” food to be eaten in small portions only a few times a month. A moderate amount of red meat can be included in the Atlantic diet.

It’s the similarities of these two eating patterns, though, that are important for maintaining good health.

Both are centred on daily intake of nutrient-dense plant foods such as vegetables and fruit, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and olive oil. And both include a moderate amount of fish and seafood.

Both eating patterns also promote social and cultural aspects of healthy eating – cooking meals at home, mindful eating, sharing meals with family – as well as daily physical activity.

Follow these principles and you’ll end up with a healthy eating plan.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD


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