Eating to your heart’s content: How the Mediterranean Diet can improve your heart health

April 8, 2015
Of all the diets vying for our attention, the Mediterranean diet seems to be the one health care professionals are starting to support.

Of all the diets vying for our attention, the Mediterranean Diet is the one gaining the support of health professionals.

A sunset over the Mediterranean Sea, a perfectly poached salmon on a bed of roasted vegetables and a glass of fine red wine in your hand. This may sound like a dream-like vacation, but it could also be your everyday… well, everything except for the sunset.

Of all the diets vying for our attention, the Mediterranean Diet is the one gaining the support of health professionals. The diet, relying heavily on plant-based foods, can assist with weight management, help decrease the chance of certain cancers and even help maintain a healthy heart.

John P. Erwin III, MD, a cardiologist and professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, sheds some light on the heart-healthy benefits of the diet.

What to eat

As opposed to a traditional western diet, the Mediterranean Diet downplays starches and red meats and promotes high-fiber vegetables and poultry or fish. Since the diet doesn’t shy away from fats, but rather encourages the consumption of healthy, unsaturated fats, it tends to be more satisfying than other popular diets.

“The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes consuming more vegetables and substituting butters and other fats for healthier alternatives like olive or canola oil,” explained Erwin, who even encourages his patients to adopt the diet.

An average day on the diet would include:

  • Four to eight servings of non-starch vegetables
  • Two to four servings of fruit
  • One to three servings of legumes and nuts (which are good sources of protein)
  • Four to six servings of whole grains
  • One to three servings of low-fat dairy products

While the Mediterranean is mostly plant-based, it does encourage one to three servings of fish or poultry per week. The fish and poultry can be prepared in most fashions, but frying is discouraged. And for those who can’t imagine giving up red meat, don’t worry, the Mediterranean Diet allows for the occasional burger three or four times in a month.

In addition, women are allowed to consume one alcoholic beverage per day and men may have up to two drinks, because of their higher body mass and ability to metabolize alcohol quicker.

The benefits

There are a number of benefits to adhering to the diet – including weight loss and management – but ultimately, the diet encourages a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Studies have shown that following the Mediterranean Diet can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular events and stokes by 38 percent. While the diet is higher in fat than most traditional, heart-healthy diets, its use of unsaturated fats helps to reduce the negative effects saturated fats can have on the cardiovascular system. In addition to its heart benefits, the Mediterranean Diet has also been associated with a lower risk of cancer.

But the good news doesn’t stop there: “In a recent study, it was revealed that people who followed eating habits similar to the Mediterranean Diet experienced a change in the lifespan of their chromosomes. The ends of the chromosomes (telomeres), which hold the strands of DNA together like caps, became longer, which is associated with a longer aging process,” Erwin said.

Since the chromosomes have a longer life cycle, this potentially translates into a longer lifespan for the individual. Even more compelling, this effect could also mean a slower aging process.

It’s a lifestyle, not a diet

“It’s important to realize the Mediterranean Diet is not so much a diet as it is a lifestyle,” Erwin said. “For the benefits to be seen, regular adherence is a must.”

As with all lifestyles, physical activity and exercise are still important. Erwin recommends including 30 to 60 minutes of exercise five times per week to help compliment the diet’s effects on your heart health. Keep in mind that the health benefits of exercise can be attained by moderate, low-impact activities such as walking, biking or swimming.

While the diet promotes many healthy substitutes that can help weight management or lead to weight loss, it is important to be conscious of portion sizes. Large portions can lead to weight gain, which mitigates some of the diet’s benefits. For those trying to lose weight, be sure to still account for portions and calories.

For individuals who are looking to improve their health and lifestyle – and put an end to the diet wars – the Mediterranean Diet may be the answer.

For more information about the Mediterranean Diet and its effects on heart-health, visit the Mayo Clinic’s website.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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