For those of you searching for new eating habits, you’ve probably come across the Mediterranean diet. Interest in this nutrition plan started with the realization that heart disease causes fewer deaths in countries like Greece and Italy compared to the United States and northern Europe. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a Mediterranean-style diet is one of the healthiest eating plans around. But is the Mediterranean diet heart-healthy?
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet garnered the attention of health care providers in the 1960s when they noticed that people who lived in countries in the region that border the Mediterranean Sea were less likely to die from heart disease. This led researchers to study its ties to heart health, discovering that the diet reduces the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer, diabetes, dementia and obesity
The Mediterranean diet focuses on the daily consumption of heart-healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. Embracing this healthy eating plan introduces you to more balanced nutrition while also removing highly processed foods. Plant-based foods and fish are the main events at meals. These foods provide excellent vitamins and minerals and are great sources of fiber. Fatty fish – such as mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines and albacore tuna – are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats fight inflammation in the body, reduce blood clotting, decrease triglycerides and lower the risk of stroke and heart failure.
You’ll also see that this eating plan doesn’t shy away from healthy fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from oils, nuts and seeds provide heart and brain benefits, while improving satiety.
Dairy is modestly consumed and red meat is allowed occasionally. Refined sugar and flour are phased out almost entirely from most meals. Additionally, spices and herbs are used more often than salt, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and help lower blood pressure.
The following foods are at the center of the Mediterranean diet:
- Fruits and vegetables – lots of them
- Whole grain bread, pasta, cereal, etc.
- Fish and seafood
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
- Lean meat
The use of “diet” in the name is sort of a misnomer for a few reasons. First, lifestyle aspects comprise the Mediterranean diet as well. One such characteristic is the manner in which you eat. Culturally, part of the Mediterranean way of life is slowing down and enjoying your meal. Sit down at a table for at least two lunches or dinners per week, and spend at least 20 minutes eating those meals, preferably with family or friends. Not only will those meals likely be more pleasant, but you can also become more in tune with your body and recognize when you are full.
Second, the term “diet” can have a negative connotation when it conjures up mental images of “fad diets” that are usually only followed for a short time. While you don’t have to adhere to the Mediterranean diet forever, following it long-term encourages a healthy relationship with food and can lead to lifelong health benefits.
“The Mediterranean diet is a great foundation for healthy eating habits,” says Katie Nowakowski, dietitian and surgical weight loss program manager for Bon Secours St. Francis Surgical Weight Loss. Not only is there a focus on whole, non-processed foods, but the Mediterranean lifestyle also promotes the social connections created through meals.”
Is the Mediterranean diet heart-healthy?
The Mediterranean diet has long been considered by researchers to be a diet that leads to longer and healthier living. It can help reduce cardiovascular risks as well as the chances of developing diabetes and high cholesterol. Additionally, it can reduce the risk of dementia, depression and breast cancer among other health benefits. As with any diet, it is also important to participate in routine physical activity.
Before making any major changes to your current diet, be sure to consult with your primary care physician.