Since the 1960s, the Mediterranean diet has been known as heart healthy, and today its popularity continues, even being named the #1 diet of 2021 by US News & World Report. Interest in the Mediterranean diet pattern began when researchers noted fewer numbers of deaths from cardiovascular disease in people groups living on the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike many other popular diets like the keto diet, which is rigid, difficult to maintain, and has many nutritional risks involved like discouraging entire food groups, the Mediterranean diet offers a variety of foods and is thus sustainable long term. The studies proving its benefits are so many that the US Dietary Guidelines (DGs) for Americans provides a “Healthy Mediterranean Eating Pattern as one example of an eating pattern than aligns with the DGs.
Since people groups on the Mediterranean eat differently (consider Greek versus Spanish food), there is no “one” Mediterranean diet. Rather, the DGs focuses on weekly food group targets. In evaluating the science, the DGs determined, the core of these diets is fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds which are all consumed daily. Fish and beans are recommended 2-3 times a week, as well as moderate intake of eggs and low-fat dairy products. Red meat is recommended less often, a few times a month only. Methods of preparation are also important. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes low sodium and low processed, whole foods; so instead of frying fish, it should be grilled on baked, and instead of enhancing flavor with sodium and high fat sauces, the diet focuses instead on herbs and spices. In addition, the eating pattern encourages socializing over meals and daily physical activity, other components of a healthy lifestyle.
What’s the science behind the heart healthy benefits? There are many components of the Mediterranean diet believed to improve heart health. The diet switches artery-clogging saturated and trans fats found in processed foods and fatty red meat, with healthier mono and polyunsaturated fats found in plants. The Mediterranean diet, helps with lowering blood cholesterol and blood pressure to allow for better heart health and lower risk of cardiovascular incidents. Soluble fiber in whole grains and the mono and polyunsaturated fats in olive help lower blood cholesterol. Omega 3 fatty acids in fish reduce blood clotting and inflation. Furthermore, the emphasis on whole, processed foods ensures lower sodium content which also helps control blood pressure. Some research also suggests a heart benefit of moderate alcohol consumption, but it should be emphasized this is red wine, and consuming it with meals. This benefit, however, is not sufficient for those that don’t drink to start.
The Mediterranean Diet has a lot of flexibility and provides a wide variety of foods, so it may be an easier healthy eating plan than “fad” diets. It makes room for a delicious variety of healthy foods it also incorporates lifestyle factors like physical activity. For more information, check out The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or Mayo Clinic’s page. And as always, speak with a doctor or dietitian before starting a diet or drastically changing eating habits.This article was posted in Nutrition News.