Heart Health Awareness Month: The Mediterranean Diet

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Heart Health Awareness Month: The Mediterranean Diet

Did you know that February is National Heart Health Month? First declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, each February we aim to raise awareness for heart health by wearing red and promoting heart-healthy lifestyle choices. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is still one of the leading causes of deaths in the U.S.

By living a healthy lifestyle (including keeping your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugars low), you will lower your risk of heart disease. Paired with regular exercise, there are many diets marketed to promote “healthy weight-loss.” While many of these “trendy” diets work temporarily, they are often difficult to maintain and do not lead to lasting results. But there is one diet in particular that promotes healthy fats, whole grains, and all of the fruits and vegetables you can stomach… Have you ever heard of the Mediterranean diet?

What Is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet first became popular in the 1950’s, when doctors found that heart disease was less common in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece, than in the U.S. That is largely due to the diet being mostly made up of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and healthy fats. Olive oil, the primary added fat found in the diet, is used instead of dairy fats such as butter and margarine. If that does not impress you; in 2019, U.S News & World Report ranked it the number one overall best diet, citing a “host of health benefits such as weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and even diabetes prevention.”

In 1993, the Harvard School of Public Health (along with Oldways) developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, a healthier alternative to the original food pyramid created by the USDA. The pyramid emphasizes certain foods based on countries such as Crete, Greece, and southern Italy during the mid-20th century, after seeing the low rates of chronic disease and adult life expectancy, despite the lack of access to healthcare. The pyramid also suggests that daily exercise and the social aspects of eating meals together are equally important.

Along with eating “core” foods daily such as fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains, the diet suggests eating fish at least twice a week as a source of protein. Limiting red meat to only a few portions a month, along with smaller portions of poultry, eggs, and dairy is also part to the Mediterranean diet. Don’t worry – the diet does allow for up to one five (5) oz glass of red wine per day.

Why Is It helpful?

What makes the Mediterranean diet so appealing is that it is more of an eating pattern than it is a “calorie-restricting” diet. Dr. Robert E Graham, a physician at Physio Logic in New York, stated “I look at it as a Mediterranean lifestyle. It’s not so much what they eat, which is beneficial and anti-inflammatory, rather it’s how they eat it.” The diet focuses on enjoying food with the company of loved ones, maintaining an active lifestyle, and moderation.

The best part – adhering to the diet actually makes a difference. A 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over a five-year period, people who followed the Mediterranean diet saw a 30% lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and even death from cardiovascular causes. Enjoying fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel not only taste great, but because they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, they help reduce inflammation and strengthen skin.

Along with the numerous health benefits (and the fact that it is delicious!), the Mediterranean diet allows for dietary preferences, and encourages variety in both food and flavor from all food groups. This is helpful in removing the internal “restrictive feelings” that are often paired with popular diets. The diet is a lifestyle that allows for foods from multiple different groups, sure to curb any craving.

Just Like All Diets…

I would be remiss if I did not mention one flaw to the diet; while the diet recommends which proportion of foods to eat (such as eat more fruits/vegetables as opposed to dairy products), the diet does not suggest portion sizes. The Mediterranean diet pyramid is a great guide to use for the diet, but the diet is most effective when all (or a combination of) the foods are consumed, rather than just adding olive oil to every meal. When adhering to the Mediterranean diet, it is important to understand that physical activity levels and body composition play a factor, and results may vary.

For a list of Mediterranean diet recipes, the Mayo Clinic has provided a great compilation of recipes from main dishes to desserts. If you are looking for a lifestyle change that encourages great food and sharing it with loved ones, I encourage you to give the Mediterranean diet a shot. Not only will you feel better, but you will be actively lowering your risk of heart disease one meal at a time… and with the company of loved ones, what’s better than that!

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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