Mediterranean Diet for Heart Health: How It Works & Benefits

Mediterranean Diet for Heart Health: How It Works & Benefits

The Mediterranean-style diet is one of the healthiest, popular diet plans. It's plant-based and incorporates the traditional flavors of the Mediterranean Sea region.

A rich source of flavorful ingredients like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet has it all — delicious and nutritious!

It has been linked to a variety of benefits and helps support brain health, promotes heart health, regulates blood sugar levels, and so on.

There are no concrete rules for following the Mediterranean diet, but there are many general guidelines that you can use to incorporate the principles of this diet into your daily routine.

Are you looking for a heart-healthy diet? The Mediterranean diet might just be the right fit for you.

Why the Mediterranean diet, specifically?

The Mediterranean diet was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Ancel Keys, who studied the diets of people living near the Mediterranean Sea.

He noticed that these people had lower rates of cardiovascular disease than those living farther from the sea. He theorized that their diet played a role in their low rate of heart problems.

Since then, studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may help reduce risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and even cancer.

In fact, some research suggests that the Mediterranean diet could actually reverse atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and prevent heart attacks.

What makes the Mediterranean diet special?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional cuisines of Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Cyprus.

These people were exceptionally healthy and at a low risk for many chronic conditions. (1)

There are no strict rules or guidelines for the diet, but it typically encourages fruits, veggies, whole grains, legume, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and protein. Refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and added sugars should be restricted ((2).

Plants-based foods, such vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds, and herbs and spices, are foundational to the diet. Olive oil is the primary source of added fat.

Fish, seafood, poultry, and dairy products are included in moderation. Meat and sweets are eaten only rarely.

A number of studies have now shown that the Mediterranean Diet can promote weight loss and prevent heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes. (3)

For this reason, a Mediterranean diet is often recommended to people who want to improve their health and prevent chronic diseases.

Promotes heart health

The Mediterranean diet has long been studied for its ability to promote good heart health. Research shows that the Mediterranean diet might even be linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and strokes. (4)

A study found that the Mediterranean diet was better than a low-fat diet at preventing plaque buildup in the arteries. (5)

Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet may be able to lower blood pressure to support heart healthy. (6)

The Mediterranean diet also appears to protect against inflammation and oxidative stress which are both associated with heart disease. (7)

Overall, the Mediterranean diet promotes heart health through several mechanisms including:

• Lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol

• Reducing triglycerides

• Increasing HDL ("good") cholesterol

• Improving insulin sensitivity

• Preventing platelet aggregation

• Decreasing inflammatory markers

• Promoting antioxidant activity

• Supporting endothelial function

• Protecting against hypertension

Other potential health benefits:

Supports healthy blood sugar levels

The Mediterranean diet encourages eating a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.  (7)

Following this eating pattern may help control blood sugar levels and prevent type 2 diabetes.

Multiple studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can lower fasting blood sugar levels and help people with diabetes manage their condition better (8).

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, which improves the body’s capacity to use insulin to regulate glucose levels. (9, 10)

Protects brain function

Studies show that the Mediterranean diet may help prevent cognitive decline as you age.

One study including 512 people found a link between greater adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and better memory. (11)

Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may help prevent dementia, cognitive impairment, or Alzheimer’s disease. (12)

More importantly, another study found that following the Mediterranean diet improved cognitive function, memory, and attention in healthy older adults (13).

How to implement it

The diet emphasizes fresh produce over processed food, uses herbs and spices instead of salt, and avoids red meat. It limits animal protein intake to less than 10% of total calories per day.

  • Eat: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, herbs and spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Moderately eat poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Eat rarely: red meat, sweeten­ed beverages, refined sugars, processed meats, refined grains, refined oil like fried food, fast food and other highly processed food.

Healthy fats is the key

Olive oil is the main source of added fat in a typical Mediterranean diet. Monounsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Nuts and seeds are rich in monounsaturated fats.

Fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardine, albacore, and salmon, are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These polyunsaturated fats are essential for fighting chronic inflammation in the body

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements help reduce triglycerides, prevent blood clots, and lower the risk for stroke and heart disease.

How about wine?

Wine is often associated with Mediterranean diet. You can include it but only in moderation. Alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease but it has other health risks too.

If you drink alcohol, limit your intake to one glass per day. If you drink more than that, cut back gradually until you reach your goal.

You can also choose red wine over white wine because red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant compound that helps fight cancer and heart disease.

Coffee and tea are healthy drinks on the Mediterranean diet.--> Avoid adding lots of added sugar and cream.

Limit sugary drinks, including sodas and sweet teas, which are very high on added sugar. Fruit juices can be included in moderation, but you're better off choosing whole fruits for their fiber content.

The Mediterranean diet way

Are you interested in trying the Mediterranean diet for yourself? Start here for some tips.

Make meals around vegetables, beans, and whole grains. You should eat two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetable each day.

Eating at least two fish meals each week is one way to improve your heart health.

Use olive oil instead of butter when cooking. For dessert, serve fresh fruit.

Being physically active and eating healthy foods together with family and friends is part of living the Mediterranean lifestyle.

It's important to remember that this isn't just a diet plan. It's a way of life.

So if you want to live longer and healthier, try the Mediterranean diet.

Final Thoughts

There isn't one specific Mediterranean diet, but this dietary pattern is generally high in healthy plant foods and low in animal foods, with an emphasis on fish and seafood.

It has been associated to numerous health benefits and may improve your overall health.

You can adapt the principles of a Mediterranean diet to fit your lifestyle. If you don't like fish but whole wheat pasta and extra virgin olive oil are your favorites then start making delicious, Mediterranean-inspired dishes with foods you love.

Eating more fruits and vegetables throughout the day is a good way to start eating healthier. Add a side salad or steaming vegetable dish to your main meals, and enjoy a fresh piece for dessert!

The diet can be used for a long period of time to improve cardiovascular health, control blood sugar levels and prevent chronic diseases.