Importance: Higher Mediterranean diet (MED) intake has been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but limited data are available about the underlying molecular mechanisms of this inverse disease association in human populations.
Objective: To better characterize the relative contribution of traditional and novel factors to the MED-related risk reduction in CVD events in a US population.
Design, setting, and participants: Using a prospective cohort design, baseline MED intake was assessed in 25 994 initially healthy US women in the Women's Health Study who were followed up to 12 years. Potential mediating effects of a panel of 40 biomarkers were evaluated, including lipids, lipoproteins, apolipoproteins, inflammation, glucose metabolism and insulin resistance, branched-chain amino acids, small-molecule metabolites, and clinical factors. Baseline study information and samples were collected between April 30, 1993, and January 24, 1996. Analyses were conducted between August 1, 2017, and October 30, 2018.
Exposures: Intake of MED is a 9-category measure of adherence to a Mediterranean dietary pattern. Participants were categorized into 3 levels based on their adherence to the MED.
Main outcomes and measures: Incident CVD confirmed through medical records and the proportion of CVD risk reduction explained by mediators.
Results: Among 25 994 women (mean [SD] age, 54.7 [7.1] years), those with low, middle, and upper MED intakes composed 39.0%, 36.2%, and 24.8% of the study population and experienced 428 (4.2%), 356 (3.8%), and 246 (3.8%) incident CVD events, respectively. Compared with the reference group who had low MED intake, CVD risk reductions were observed for the middle and upper groups, with respective HRs of 0.77 (95% CI, 0.67-0.90) and 0.72 (95% CI, 0.61-0.86) (P for trend < .001). The largest mediators of the CVD risk reduction of MED intake were biomarkers of inflammation (accounting for 29.2% of the MED-CVD association), glucose metabolism and insulin resistance (27.9%), and body mass index (27.3%), followed by blood pressure (26.6%), traditional lipids (26.0%), high-density lipoprotein measures (24.0%) or very low-density lipoprotein measures (20.8%), with lesser contributions from low-density lipoproteins (13.0%), branched-chain amino acids (13.6%), apolipoproteins (6.5%), or other small-molecule metabolites (5.8%).
Conclusions and relevance: In this study, higher MED intake was associated with approximately one-fourth relative risk reduction in CVD events, which could be explained in part by known risk factors, both traditional and novel.