Heart of Dixie Cardiology
Jamison C. Jones, MD, F.A.C.C.
There are several questions that I get asked almost on a daily basis in my clinic.
- “What is the best way to eat to keep my vessels healthy?”
- “What is the best diet to prevent heart attacks?”
- “What else can I do to prevent vascular disease?”
- “I am trying to lose weight, do you have any suggestions?”
In the recent years the Cardiology community has veered on this topic. For years the American Heart Association supported the low fat, high carb, craze that was thought to decrease cholesterol, improve metabolic profile and reduce cardiovascular risk. Turns out however that the high carbohydrate component (thought to be a harmless alternative) was in fact making the country’s weight problem worse. This in-turn leading to more disease not less.
We now have come to better understand, through several well designed scientific studies that there is a healthier way of eating. A plan that if followed could dramatically reduce your risk of illness, disease, and many medical problems including, vascular disease, heart attacks and strokes.
This in fact, combined with exercise, may reduce vascular disease better than most of the medications we use. In my clinic I discuss this method of prevention with every patient and share with them this document below which outlines the concepts of the “Mediterranean Diet”.
Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan!
Benefits of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating rather than a formal diet plan.
A study by Spanish researchers has found that eating a Mediterranean diet can slash your risk of first-time heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death by a whopping 30%, compared to the old low-fat diet recommended by the American Medical Association and American Heart Association.
The five-year study called PREDIMED included 7,447 people at high risk for heart attack or stroke. After five years, the participants who followed the Mediterranean diet showed a substantial 30% reduction in heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths, compared to the low-fat group.
Additional research has shown that the Mediterranean diet reduces not just vascular disease but also various types of cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Key Components of the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes:
- Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil
- Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
- Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
- Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
- The diet also recognizes the importance of being physically active, and enjoying meals with family and friends.
Focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains
The Mediterranean diet traditionally includes fruits, vegetables and grains. For example, residents of Greece average six or more servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.
Grains in the Mediterranean region are typically whole grain and usually contain very few unhealthy trans fats.
Nuts are another part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Nuts are high in fat, but most of the fat is healthy. Because nuts are high in calories, they should not be eaten in large amounts generally no more than a handful a day. For the best nutrition, avoid candied or honey-roasted and heavily salted nuts.
Choose healthy fats
The focus of the Mediterranean diet isn’t on limiting total fat consumption, but rather on choosing healthier types of fat. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease.
The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil is mainly monounsaturated fat a type of fat that can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats. “Extra-virgin” and “virgin” olive oils (the least processed forms) also contain the highest levels of protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
Canola oil and some nuts contain the beneficial linolenic acid (a type of omega-3 fatty acid) in addition to healthy unsaturated fat. Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, decrease blood clotting, and are associated with decreased incidence of sudden heart attacks, improve the health of your blood vessels, and help moderate blood pressure. Fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish is eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean diet.
Putting it all together
The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat. Many people who switch to this style of eating say they’ll never eat any other way. Here are some specific steps to get you started:
- Eat your veggies and fruits and switch to whole grains. A variety of plant foods should make up the majority of your meals. They should be minimally processed fresh and whole are best. Include veggies and fruits in every meal and eat them for snacks as well. Switch to whole-grain bread and cereal, and begin to eat more whole-grain rice and pasta products. Keep baby carrots, apples and bananas on hand for quick, satisfying snacks. Fruit salads are a wonderful way to eat a variety of healthy fruit.
- Stay Away from processed foods – Food that comes in a can, jar, bag or box is processed. These foods are usually chemically altered and are high in calories and low in nutrition and fiber. They are full of preservatives, trans-fats, sugars and artificial ingredients.
- Go nuts – Nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, protein and healthy fats. Keep almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Choose natural peanut butter, rather than the kind with hydrogenated fat added. Try blended sesame seeds (tahini) as a dip or spread for bread.
- Pass on the butter – Try olive or canola oil as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. Lightly drizzle it over vegetables. After cooking pasta, add a touch of olive oil, some garlic and green onions for flavoring. Dip bread in flavored olive oil or lightly spread it on whole-grain bread for a tasty alternative to butter. Try tahini as a dip or spread for bread too.
- Spice it up – Herbs and spices make food tasty and can stand in for salt and fat in recipes.
- Go fish – Eat fish at least twice a week. Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Grill, bake or broil fish for great taste and easy cleanup. Avoid breaded and fried fish.
- Rein in the red meat – Limit red meat to no more than a few times a month. Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. When choosing red meat, make sure it’s lean and keep portions small (about the size of a deck of cards). Also avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat, processed meats.
- Choose low-fat dairy – Limit higher fat dairy products, such as whole or 2 percent milk, cheese and ice cream. Switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
The above information is meant to be an introduction to the Mediterranean Diet and to help begin your study. Continue to read and research the Mediterranean Diet using the internet and books. Many books, including cookbooks, can be ordered on-line or can be found at your local bookstore.
For a fascinating review of the history of the Mediterranean diet click on the link below.