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An Atlantic diet may help preserve metabolic health, a new study suggests. Image credit: Jaki Portolese/Stocksy.
  • The Atlantic diet is a diet that is popular in some regions of Portugal and Spain, and it is similar to the Mediterranean diet. It focuses on consuming fresh and local foods that are minimally processed.
  • An area of research interest is how this traditional diet can improve health and how it may impact the environment.
  • A study found that consuming the Atlantic diet may help reduce metabolic syndrome risk. However, the results did not find that the diet significantly helped reduce carbon footprint emissions.

Research is ongoing about how diets influence people’s well-being and how they affect risk for various health problems.

Research also continues to expand regarding how different diets impact the environment. Ideally, dietary patterns can help people achieve health goals while reducing carbon dioxide emissions when possible.

A study published in JAMA Network Open looked at how the Atlantic diet influenced metabolic syndrome among participants and dietary carbon footprint emissions.

Among the 574 participants, researchers found that those following the Atlantic diet significantly reduced their risk for metabolic syndrome.

However, the Atlantic diet and the control group experienced about the same reduction in carbon footprint scores. Based on the study’s limitations, more research is required with a larger sample size to see the impact of the Atlantic diet on the environment.

As noted by the authors of this study, the Atlantic diet is a traditional diet popular in northwestern Spain and Portugal.

Registered dietitian nutritionist Karen Z. Berg, not involved in the current study, explained to Medical News Today:

“You don’t often hear about the Atlantic diet, but it’s the traditional diet of Northwestern Spain and Portugal. It’s very similar to the Mediterranean diet because it focuses mainly on locally sourced fresh, minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and olive oil. It also incorporates a lot of fish and seafood consumption, cheese, milk, meat and wine. The food is generally cooked via simple methods like grilling, baking or stewing.”

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health factors that can increase the risk of stroke and diabetes. People with metabolic syndrome usually have three or more of the following:

Diet and other lifestyle changes can influence metabolic syndrome factors and thus impact the risk for even more severe health conditions. Researchers of this particular study wanted to see how the Atlantic diet affected metabolic syndrome risk.

This study involved a secondary analysis of another study: the Galicia Atlantic Diet study. The research included adults between the ages of 18 and 85.

Prospective participants were disqualified from taking part if they were pregnant, on medication to lower lipids, misused alcohol, had a terminal disease, had major cardiovascular diseases, or had dementia.

Participants also had to be part of a family unit of two or more members in order to get involved in the study.

Families were randomized into either the intervention group or the control group. Overall, 121 families in the intervention group and 110 in the control group completed the study.

The groups were similar when it came to baseline characteristics. However, the intervention group was older.

Berg noted: “It’s interesting that the clinical trial discussed looked at whole families and not just individuals. The support of family is huge when making lifestyle changes, so the fact that they could do it as a family unit likely made it easier to comply with all aspects of the diet.”

The intervention group followed the Atlantic diet, and the control group followed their normal lifestyle pattern. The intervention group received nutrition education, a cooking class, and regular food baskets to help them follow the Atlantic diet.

Researchers of the current analysis were then able to calculate participants’ carbon footprints related to their diets. A person’s carbon footprint involves the amount of carbon dioxide they emit into the air.

The results found that the intervention group experienced the most improvement in terms of metabolic syndrome. Among the participants who did not have metabolic syndrome, only 2.7% in the intervention group developed metabolic syndrome, compared to 7.3% in the control group.

They also found that the intervention group was 42% less likely to develop an additional component of metabolic syndrome than the control group.

Berg commented that:

“The study found that the intervention group had less risk of developing metabolic syndrome after 6 months on the Atlantic Diet. Also, people who already had metabolic syndrome at the start of the trial were significantly less likely to exhibit an additional component of metabolic syndrome. That is an important thing to note because when people have metabolic syndrome, it is imperative to stop or slow the progression of disease.”

Overall, both groups also experienced reductions in carbon emissions, but the difference between the two groups was not statistically significant.

Researchers did find that the variability of the carbon footprints among participants was related to family membership, indicating that families can influence personal changes to food carbon emissions.

The lack of statistical significance could be related to the small sample size. Study author Dr. Mar Calvo-Malvar, a specialist in Laboratory Medicine at the University Clinical Hospital of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, explained to MNT:

“The food consumption recorded in the intervention group showed a reduction in carbon footprint of 0.17 kg CO2-eq [kilogram carbon dioxide equivalent] per person per day compared to the consumption recorded in participants in the control group, although this difference did not reach statistical significance.”

“However,” she added, it should be noted that the lack of statistical significance could be attributed to the study’s limited statistical power to measure environmental parameters. The study was initially designed to assess metabolic changes in participants. To achieve statistical significance, approximately 2,000 participants would be required.”

This study did have certain limitations that warrant consideration. Since this study was a secondary analysis of a previous study, the results face similar limitations. For example, it relied on participant reporting.

The research focused on a specific group of people in a particular region. Future studies could focus on more diversity, as all participants were white.

However, the group had overall moderate socioeconomic and educational levels, making it more possible to generalize the results.

The study was observational and thus cannot prove that following the Atlantic diet prevents metabolic syndrome.

Researchers note that the intervention was complex, so they cannot precisely determine which actions contributed to the observed results. It is possible there were some aspects that researchers did not measure, as well as unknown factors at play.

There was media attention for the study, so some participants may have changed their lifestyles because of this. Since participants did receive food baskets, it is harder to generalize the findings to groups struggling with food access.

The study also only ran for 6 months, which might not have been enough time to properly examine metabolic changes. The observed environmental results might have been impacted by the diversity of food items in participant data and the immense variety in carbon footprint emissions that the life cycle assessment of food products typically reports.

When looking at the carbon footprint, the results were not statistically significant between the intervention and the control, but this could be related to the small sample size. Larger studies may be able to see a reduction in carbon emissions related to the Atlantic diet.

Dr. Calvo-Malvar noted:

“I believe our findings provide significant evidence regarding the potential of traditional diets to accelerate progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, especially on SDG 13 (health and climate action). We intend to continue studying the effects of the traditional Atlantic diet in broader populations and in different economic contexts. Additionally, we are exploring ways to promote the adoption of this diet as a strategy to improve public health and address environmental challenges.”