The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is not actually a diet – at least, not in the Celebrity-Endorsed, Bestseller-List, Miracle-Weight-Loss, Before-and-After-Photos, Dr. Oz-Featured, Fad Diet sense of the word ‘diet’.
In fact, according to The Journal of Nutrition, even the term ‘Mediterranean diet‘ (implying that all Mediterranean people eat the same) may be misleading. The countries bordering the Mediterranean basin have different diets, traditions and cultures. The Mediterranean diet could more accurately be called the ‘Greek diet’, or – even more accurate – the Greek diet before 1960. Extensive studies on the traditional diet of Greece (before 1960) show that, compared to other Mediterranean countries, their way of eating consisted of:
- a very high intake of fruits and vegetables
- nuts and seeds
- whole grains and cereals mostly in the form of sourdough bread rather than pasta
- more olive oil and olives
- less milk but more low-fat cheese
- more fish and less meat
- moderate amounts of wine
For those growing up with the traditional diet of Greece, adult life expectancy was among the highest in the world and rates of coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and other diet-related chronic diseases were among the lowest. Working in the fields or kitchen resulted in a lifestyle that included regular physical activity and low rates of obesity.
Researchers have revealed that studies among the elderly in Greece, Denmark, Australia, Spain and China showed that the traditional Greek diet seemed more important for longevity than any single nutrient was.(1)
Dr. Sonia Anand of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario recently published a review of almost 200 separate research studies done on the Mediterranean Diet in The Archives of Internal Medicine. She said:
“We found strong evidence that a ‘Western’ diet—high in processed and red meats, refined grains, and high-fat dairy products—is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease. We should be saying to our patients: ‘You should consume less of those types of foods and gravitate more toward a Mediterranean diet!’ “
What makes this Mediterranean/traditional Greek diet so good for our hearts?
It’s been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the ‘bad’ cholesterol that’s more likely to build up fatty plaque deposits in our arteries. The healthy fats in this diet (nuts and olive/canola oils) contain a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Fish — another source of omega-3 fatty acids — is eaten frequently in the Mediterranean diet. Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides and may also improve the health of our coronary arteries. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans-fatty acids), both of which may contribute to heart disease.
And some research suggests this eating plan is good for our brains, too. Columbia University Medical School found that participants on a Mediterranean diet showed lower risks of mild cognitive impairment, while also appearing to slow decline in those already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.
Here’s how to get started on that traditional Greek/Mediterranean heart-smart diet:
- Use butter sparingly. “Low fat” or “cholesterol-free” on the label doesn’t mean a product is good for you. Many of these items are made with trans fats, which should be avoided.
- Your goal should be to eat 7-10 servings of whole fruits and vegetables every day. Keep baby carrots, apples and bananas available for snacking.
- Use canola or olive oil in cooking. Try olive oil for salad dressing and as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. Dip bread in flavored olive oil or lightly spread it on whole-grain bread for a tasty alternative to butter.
- Season your meals with herbs and spices rather than salt.
- Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. Avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat processed meats.
- Limit high fat dairy products such as whole milk, cream, cheese and ice cream. Switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
- Eat fish at least twice a week.
- Keep nuts like walnuts, almonds, pecans and Brazil nuts on hand for a quick snack.
- Enjoy a glass of wine at dinner. Drinking purple grape juice may be a healthy alternative to red wine.
Take a look at this helpful Mediterranean Food Pyramid illustration © Oldways
(1) Faustino R. Pérez-López et al. Effects of the Mediterranean diet on longevity and age-related morbid conditions. Maturitas. Volume 64, Issue 2, 20 October 2009, Pages 67–79
NEWS UPDATE, March 8, 2011: More Good News for the Mediterranean Diet: People eating a Mediterranean diet are less likely to end up with metabolic syndrome, considered a precursor to Type 2 diabetes, according to a comprehensive analysis in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.