Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan

The heart-healthy Mediterranean is a healthy eating plan based on typical foods and recipes of Mediterranean-style cooking. Here’s how to adopt the Mediterranean diet.

If you’re looking for a heart-healthy eating plan, the Mediterranean diet might be right for you. The Mediterranean diet incorporates the basics of healthy eating — plus a splash of flavorful olive oil and perhaps even a glass of red wine — among other components characterizing the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Most healthy diets include fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limit unhealthy fats. While these parts of a healthy diet remain tried-and-true, subtle variations or differences in proportions of certain foods may make a difference in your risk of heart disease.

Benefits of the Mediterranean diet

A traditional Mediterranean diet consisting of large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil—coupled with physical activity—reduces the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. More specifically:

  • Protecting against type 2 diabetes. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, slowing down digestion and preventing huge swings in blood sugar.
  • Preventing heart disease and strokes. Refined breads, processed foods, and red meat are discouraged in a Mediterranean diet, and it encourages drinking red wine instead of hard liquor, which have all been linked to heart disease and stroke prevention.
  • Keeping you agile. The nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce a senior’s risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about 70 percent.
  • Increased longevity. When there is a reduction in developing heart disease or cancer, as in the case when you follow a Mediterranean diet, there is a 20% reduced risk of death at any age.

What does the Mediterranean Diet include?

  • Lots of plant foods
  • Fresh fruit as dessert
  • High consumption of beans, nuts, cereals (in the form of wheat, oats, barley, corn or brown rice) and seeds
  • Olive oil as the main source of dietary fat
  • Cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods
  • Moderate amounts of fish and poultry
  • No more than about four eggs each week
  • Small amounts of red meat each week (compared to northern Europe)
  • Low to moderate amounts of wine
  • 25% to 35% of calorie intake consists of fat
  • Saturated fat makes up no more than 8% of calorie intake

The diet also recognizes the importance of being physically active, and enjoying meals with family and friends.

Focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains

The Mediterranean diet traditionally includes fruits, vegetables and grains. Residents of Greece consume average six or more servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

Grains in the Mediterranean region are typically whole grain and usually contain very few unhealthy trans fats, and bread is an important part of the diet. However, throughout the Mediterranean region, bread is eaten plain or dipped in olive oil — not eaten with butter or margarine, which contains saturated or trans fats.

Nuts are another part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. They are an important source of nutrients for humans. Because nuts generally have a high oil content, they are a highly prized food and energy source. Nuts are high in fat, but most of the fat is healthy.

Choose healthier fats

The focus of the Mediterranean diet isn’t on limiting total fat consumption, but rather on choosing healthier types of fat. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil is a source of unsaturated fat, or omega-3 fatty acids. This type of fat is good for your heart, unlike its saturated counterpart. Omega-3 fatty acids are powerful disease fighters. Because of olive oil’s omega-3 content, it is believed that olive oil helps prevent heart disease and stroke and encourages healthy cholesterol levels. Some experts believe that olive oil can help prevent certain cancers as well. It is also known to help lower blood sugar.”Extra-virgin” and “virgin” olive oils (the least processed forms) also contain the highest levels of protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.

What about wine?

Wine has a long history of use as an early form of medication, being recommended variously as a safe alternative to drinking water, an antiseptic for treating wounds, a digestive aid, and as a cure for a wide range of ailments.

Drinking small quantities of wine is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet typically includes a moderate amount of wine (one glass), usually red wine.

Six tips to start your effort:

The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat. Many people who switch to this style of eating say they’ll never eat any other way. Here are some specific steps to get you started:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables by having them as a snack or adding them to other recipes Go nuts:
  2. Try olive as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine or tahini as a dip or spread for bread.
  3. Spice it up: Herbs and spices make food tasty and can stand in for salt and fat in recipes.
  4. Eat fish at least twice a week.
  5. Limit red meat to no more than a few times a month.
  6. Choose low-fat dairy.

For Example

Instead of this: Try this Mediterranean diet option:
Crackers, chips, pretzels and ranch dip Celery, carrot or pepper strips and salsa
White rice Quinoa
Sandwiches with white bread or rolls Sandwich fillings in whole wheat tortillas
Hamburgers Salmon croquettes
Full-fat ice cream Pudding made with skim or 1% milk
Eggs with Hollandaise sauce Eggs with salsa

Suggestions courtesy of Stacey Nelson, Massachusetts General Hospital

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