Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Diet (and lifestyle) can be a direct and indirect cause; therefore your diet can play a role in significantly reducing the risk of heart disease.
With so many different diets around the world, and different types of food and cooking styles, it is no wonder that each diet plays a unique role in our health, both good and bad. But of these many diets, is the Mediterranean diet the best one for the heart?
What is a Mediterranean Diet?
Firstly, we need to clarify exactly what we mean by a Mediterranean diet. With more than ten countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, each with a unique diet, which one are we talking about when we say a Mediterranean diet?
Generally, when we are talking about a Mediterranean diet, we mean an Italian or Greek diet. It is a diet that features healthy fat from olive oil, plenty fruits and vegetables, a good amount of fish and pulses, and unprocessed foods. In addition, consumption of red wine is a characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, however, crucially; it is usually only drunk in moderation.
Olive Oil – a healthy fat
One of the main reasons the Mediterranean diet is so good for the heart is because it is rich in olive oil. Rather than opt for high-saturated butter, Meditarraneans primarily use olive oil to cook and flavour their food, as well as opting for oil and balsamic instead of high-fat salad dressings, and dipping their bread in olive oil instead of lathering it in butter.
Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids help prevent cardiovascular disease by reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood. In addition, they are anti-inflammatory and also reduce the stickiness of blood, thereby reducing the risk of blockages in blood vessels and in turn reducing the risk of heart attacks.
Moreover, research has also shown that monounsaturated fatty acids can have a positive effect on insulin levels, and therefore helps to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Another health benefit of olive oil is when it is used for cooking. Most people cook with cheap, low quality vegetable oil. This can produce trans fats, which damage cells. However, cooking with olive oil does not produce these damaging fats and as such is the better choice of cooking oil.
Lots of Fruit and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants which are beneficial for the heart because they neutralize oxidants that cause inflammation and damage cells, including the arteries.
Antioxidants also help prevent the adverse effects of LDL cholesterol, which is, among other things, sticking to artery walls. This can cause blockages in the arteries and lead to cardiovascular disease.
The fruits and vegetables consumed in the Mediterranean diet are varied, which is very important because different fruits and vegetables have different vitamins and minerals which work together and in the correct ratios to maintain a healthy heart.
Red wine is also very high in antioxidants, and as mentioned, is a feature of the Mediterranean diet. Red wine also has a number of other health benefits, such as improving blood flow, which helps to prevent blood clots, and helps maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.
It is important to note that the Mediterraneans drink in moderation and so they reap the health benefits of red wine, without the adverse effects of consuming a high amount of alcohol. Red wine is also usually only drunk as an accompaniment to food – and in fact, helps to counteract the negative effects of eating a high-fat meal, for example, cheese which could be a reason why, apart from bringing out the flavour, red wine is enjoyed with cheese.
Plenty of Fish
The Mediterraneans’ proximity to the sea, means that fish and seafood is a key element of their diet. Fish, particularly oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, is good for the heart because they are high in omega 3 essential fatty acids. There is a plethora of research that shows the benefits of omega 3 on heart health, which includes modulating LDL cholesterol, lowering triglyceride levels and reducing inflammation in the cardiovascular system.
In addition, fish is generally a very lean meat and so this is makes it a good choice for a heart-healthy diet. (See also: Best fish to eat while on a diet)
In general diets have become very meat-heavy, and people often forget that pulses can provide of very rich and healthy alternative source of protein, without the saturated fat that comes with eating red meat. The likes of chick peas, lentils, broad beans, kidney beans etc. are widely used in the Mediterranean diet and are all also high in fibre, which can help lower LDL cholesterol.
Fresh, unprocessed foods
‘Whole food’ is the term given to foods that have not been modified or processed.
Many diets today have moved away from traditional whole foods and introduced processed foods.
Processing involves adding things like bulking agents, sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemicals and other additives. This process allows food companies to produce food more cheaply, and to extend its shelf life.
Foods that are generally subjected to this process are meats and T.V. dinners/ready meals. Some of the additives used, such as salt, can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease.
In fact, the American Heart Association carried out a review of studies on processed meat and found that they are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Crucially, Mediterraneans have a deep rooted food and cooking culture. This means meals are more often than not, cooked from scratch (not out of a bottle or package) using fresh ingredients which are sourced locally, thereby minimising the need for any processing.
Following the Meditarranean example of cooking from scratch and choosing fresh, unprocessed, locally sourced food, can therefore help to lower you risk of heart disease.
It also means that when you do eat less heart-healthy foods such as red meats and cheese which are high in saturated fats (but still eaten in moderation in the Meditarranean diet) you will at least be choosing natural, good quality meats and cheeses without the unhealthy additives from processed options.
While diet clearly plays an important part in a healthy heart, taking time to relax and de-stress cannot be underestimated.
A study in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine shows that relaxation and physical exercise decreases blood pressure, which is in turn, supports the cardiovascular system, including the heart.
Physical exercise not only helps you lose weight, which is a must in any programme designed to benefit the heart. Also, stress increase blood pressure and produces hormones that increase the risk of coronary heart disease, namely cortisol.
The Mediterraneans are known for enjoying a slower-paced lifestyle that values the importance of relaxation, and taking proper time out of the day to enjoy a meal. There is no eating on the go, or in front of the TV, or rushing up for the table as soon as you have finished. Meals are enjoyed at length and sitting down at the table (which aids digestion) and preferably in the company of others. The Italians also often partake in a daily ‘passeggiata’, gentle exercise in the form of an evening walk.
Mediterranean diet is the best diet for the heart
As we have seen, the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle has a number of health benefits, with research supporting it as being heart-healthy. The Mediterranean countries, particularly Italy and Greece have better retained their traditional way of cooking and eating, and this has ensured they have maintained a real connection with their food.
This connection has made good food part of their lifestyle and culture, where meals are celebrated, preferably in the company of friends and family, and perhaps one could argue that this is also why the Mediterranean diet is the best diet for the heart.