How the Mediterranean Diet May Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease


What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the healthy eating habits of people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, which is where this diet gets its name. These countries include Greece, Italy, Spain, and France. People in these countries mostly eat plant-based foods, choose healthier fat sources like olive oil, consume less salt, and prefer fish and poultry for their protein instead of red meat.

RELATED: Infographic: The Mediterranean Diet

Although some naysayers may claim this is a “fad,” the health benefits of a Mediterranean Diet have been published since as early as 1970. The principles are based on the analysis of Ancel Keys, PhD. Dr. Keys is known for his researched on the relationship between diet and cardiovascular disease. By analyzing the diet and the health data from more than 12,000 men from different countries, Dr. Keys concluded that there is a correlation between a diet that’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and the development of cardiovascular disease. He also observed that people who live in countries where diets are low in saturated fat and cholesterol have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease.

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Fruits and vegetables make up the majority of the Mediterranean diet. They are high in dietary fiber and flavonoids, which decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Aside from heart disease, the Mediterranean diet can also provide protection against type-2 diabetes, since fiber-rich foods help to slow down digestion and prevent sudden surges of blood sugar.

If you are older than 40 and are interested in improving how you eat, this diet may have additional benefits. Studies show that adherence to this type of diet helps to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive declines, which can occur as people get older.

Mediterranean Diet: The Basics

Despite what many diet gurus will tell you, there is no “right way” to do the Mediterranean diet. As long as you stick with the guiding principles, you still can reap the benefits regardless of how you do it. The basic components of the Mediterranean diet include the following:

Plant-Based Foods

The majority of the foods in the Mediterranean diet comes from plants. These include fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grains, herbs, spices, and olive oil. Daily servings of these foods are recommended.

RELATED: Heart-healthy Recipe: Farmers Market Mediterranean Pasta

Lean Protein Sources

The Mediterranean diet focuses on lean sources of protein, including fish and poultry. Fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, is the main source of animal protein in the diet. Some of the best options include lake trout, albacore tuna, salmon, and sardines. A serving of fish twice a week is strongly recommended.

Eggs, chicken, low-fat dairy, and cheese can be consumed in small portions a few times each week. Poultry and red meat should be limited to occasional servings of three ounces or less, which are about the size of the palm of your hand.

Unlike most eating plans, the Mediterranean diet isn’t restrictive and regimented. This means you can still indulge in sweets and alcohol from time to time, though as with all things in life, moderation should be practiced. Sweets should come in small, manageable portions, just enough to satisfy the sweet tooth. As for alcohol, it is recommended that women should limit their intake to one drink per day and men shouldn’t have more than two drinks a day.

How to Get Started

Getting started is the hardest part of any lifestyle change. Fortunately, starting can be quite easy with the Mediterranean diet because it isn’t as restrictive as other diets. Here are a few tips to help you jump into this lifestyle:

1. Include more plant-based foods in your meals

This doesn’t mean you have to become vegetarian. It simply implies that the majority of the ingredients in your meals should be plant-based. This could mean adding more vegetables in your dish or cooking your food in healthy oils like olive oil.

Greeks, who are considered to be among the highest consumers of vegetables, are able to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diet by making vegetable casseroles.

RELATED: Summer Vegetable Gratin

2. Stock your pantry with Mediterranean diet-friendly foods

If you look into the basics of the Mediterranean diet, you’ll see that it’s really all about simple eating and making meals from whole and fresh ingredients. It’s easier to stick with the lifestyle if you have the basic ingredients in your pantry. However, if fresh produce isn’t available, frozen and canned versions may do just as well.

Stock up on canned tomatoes for making pasta, frozen vegetables for quick stir-fries, frozen and dried herbs for making your soups taste better, and frozen fruits for making healthy desserts.

3. Use the right type of olive oil

It’s true. Not all olive oils are created equal. Varieties include extra-virgin, virgin, cold-pressed, filtered, stone-milled, etc. But if you have to chose just one, pick extra-virgin, as it’s considered to be the highest grade of olive oil. It can be used in stir-fries, salads, cooking, roasting, and even in making desserts.

4. Eat less meat

The Mediterranean diet is known for being low on meat, especially red meat. Several studies suggest that by cutting back on red meat and other non-lean animal protein, you can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease.

There are different ways to eat less meat with little effort. For example, you can use vegetables with different textures like mushrooms or eggplant, and try using twice as many vegetables as meats in your recipes.

5. Include fish in your diet

Fish and other sources of lean animal protein are highly recommended in the Mediterranean diet. They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the risk of heart disease, improve skin and hair, and help prevent cognitive decline. Fresh fish is preferred; however you can still reap the benefits of fish consumption even with canned albacore tuna and sardines.

Important Things to Consider

When considering the Mediterranean diet, you need to know that food is just part of the equation. You cannot expect to lose weight or significantly decrease your heart disease risk if other areas of your lifestyle are left unchanged.

Mediterranean’s are known for their slow and relaxed way of living. When they eat, they actually sit down and enjoy their food with others. They do not eat in a rush or sit in front of the television. Physical activity also plays an important role in keeping these people healthy. People in Mediterranean countries walk a lot! This is why the Mediterranean diet is not just really about food; it’s about the lifestyle.

So, aside from sticking to the Mediterranean diet basics, also try to emulate how the Mediterranean’s live. Eat slowly, learn to deal with stress effectively, and try to incorporate physical activity in your lifestyle. These changes may not be easy but they’re worth a try.