Nutrition / Food

How the Mediterranean Diet Can Protect Your Heart

Load up on vegetables, fish, and olive oil, and follow this eating plan to a healthier heart.

If you’re looking to follow a certain eating plan, you’ve got plenty of choices. From tried-and-true options like DASH to popular fads like keto and controversial options like the carnivore diet, there are myriad ways to eat. But, one of the more scientifically sound eating plans out there is the Mediterranean diet. It emphasizes eating produce, nuts, olive oil, and fish, while also limiting red meat, sugar, and sodium. And it may be the key to a healthier, happier heart.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

More than a traditional paint-by-numbers diet with strict rules, the Mediterranean diet is considered a broad eating plan. People in Greece eat differently than people in Italy who then eat differently than people in France. But each culture follows a few consistent tenants. Those tenants include eating an abundance of fresh produce, plus whole grains, beans, nuts, herbs, and spices, and healthy fats from sources like olive oil. You should consume fish and other seafood at least a couple times per week. You should eat dairy and eggs, on the other hand, in moderation. Red meat and sugar should be limited, but if you’d like to pair your dinner with the occasional glass of wine, go for it.

“The Mediterranean diet has never been a fad, a quick fix, or even a holy grail,” writes Katerina Vasilaki, RDN, aka the Mediterranean Dietitian. “It’s a way of life that has been scientifically shown again and again to have the benefits of better health and longer life.”

Unlike many diets, the Mediterranean eating plan does not restrict calories. It’s up to you to eat a reasonable number of calories and to engage in other healthy activities like exercise. But, if you do follow this diet, you’re off to a great start when it comes to heart health.

How the Mediterranean Diet Protects Your Heart

According to recently updated research in the New England Journal of Medicine, a calorie-unrestricted Mediterranean diet supplemented with either extra-virgin olive oil or nuts “was associated with a [30 percent] lower risk of major cardiovascular events over a period of five years” when compared to a control group on a low-fat diet. The study concludes, “Our findings support a beneficial effect of the Mediterranean diet for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

To experience those heart-healthy benefits for yourself, try making the Mediterranean diet a part of your life. Here’s how you can do exactly that.

Eat fish high in omega-3s.

At least twice per week, put some fish on your plate. If you’re replacing red meat, even better. According to Harvard Medical School, “Fish is high in heart- and brain-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s more versatile than you might think.” They recommend preparing it by grilling, baking, sautéing, or broiling, and suggest choosing fish that are high in Omega-3s but low in mercury. Examples include salmon, sardines, canned light tuna, and tilapia.

Season with herbs and spices.

You don’t need to douse food in salt, sugar, and butter to make it flavorful. Herbs and spices like basil, thyme, parsley, and za’atar can do the trick while keeping saturated fat, sodium, and overall calories in check.

Snack on nuts.

Nuts like almonds and walnuts provide a filling snack packed with protein and healthy fat. Just be sure that they’re not too heavily salted before knocking them back. A South Korean study showed that a daily dose of 56 grams of almonds—about two handfuls—reduced participants cholesterol and triglycerides. Another study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that participants following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts were 28 percent more likely to reverse metabolic syndrome, which is associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Cook with olive oil.

Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which lowers your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Plus, it’s a good replacement for saturated fats and trans fats, which can increase your risk of heart disease. Olive oil has also been shown to lower blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a University of Naples study found that a diet utilizing extra virgin olive oil, alongside a reduction in saturated fat intake, reduced the need for blood pressure medication by 48 percent.

Be generous with fruits and vegetables

To follow the Mediterranean diet, fill the majority of your plate with fruits and vegetables. Aim for seven to ten servings of produce each day. Mix things up to keep meals flavorful, colorful, and interesting. The Cleveland Clinic recommends berries for heart-healthy phytonutrients and fiber. Red, yellow, and orange vegetables—think carrots, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes—are full of cardiovascular disease-fighting carotenoids and vitamins. And, green vegetables like broccoli and spinach have been shown to lower cholesterol and protect your blood vessels.

So, the next time that you consider going on a diet, look to the Mediterranean for some inspiration. This healthy eating plan can protect your heart, and, because it’s based more on making sound lifestyle choices than imposing restrictive rules, it’s something that you can sustain for years to come.

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