Heart health is at the forefront of many health initiatives. We're constantly being told to exercise, cut out fatty foods, watch our waistline and check our cholesterol levels if we want to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease or narrowing of the arteries…..but what if all it took was a re-shuffle in the pantry? What if a diet used by millions in their home country and as part of their culture is the secret?
Olives. Tomatoes. Feta cheese. Anchovies, extra virgin olive oil and a glass of wine.
Sounds like a summer holiday on a Greek island, right?
Welcome the answer:The Mediterranean Diet
Food for thought: the discovery
Doctors and researchers were astounded that people in the Mediterranean who consumed relatively high amounts of fat had far LOWER rates of cardiovascular disease than the United States, where similar levels of fat consumption are found! This is believed to be due to the Mediterranean diet: low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat (good cholesterol) and dietary fiber. One of the main factors seems to be the health effects of olive oil included in the Mediterranean diet. Red wine is also shown to be a key ingredient of the diet – in moderation - it contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties.
Interestingly, people of the Mediterranean region have very low rates of skin cancer (widely believed to be caused by over-exposure to the sun – especially in this region known for its hot sunny weather). However, cases of melanomas in the Mediterranean countries is LOWER than in Northern Europe and significantly lower than in other hot countries such as Australia and New Zealand! It's been hypothesized that some components of the Mediterranean diet may provide protection against skin cancer.
Where is the research?
The data from the Mediterranean diet first originated from the Seven Countries Study (a collection of data from seven countries known to follow this diet). A 10-year study found that the Mediterranean diet lead to a 50% lowering of early death rates. A study published in the British Medical Journal showed that following strictly the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as the risk of developing Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology analyzed the results of 50 studies (35 clinical trials, 2 prospective and 13 cross-sectional) covering 535,000 people to examine the effect of a Mediterranean diet. The researchers reported that a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar. In a ground breaking study researchers found that people who had already had one heart attack and followed the Mediterranean diet had a 70% reduction in all-cause mortality compared to the control group. The study found that when it comes to cholesterol, regardless of the numbers, the Mediterranean diet can lead to a major shift in heart health.
What should I eat?
Olive oil is the most prevalent fat used in the preparation of salads, marinades, vegetables, poultry and seafood. Eggplant, artichokes, squash, tomatoes, legumes, onions, mushrooms, okra, cucumbers, and a variety of greens are served fresh, baked, roasted, sautéed, grilled and puréed. Yogurt and cheese are also major components of Mediterranean cooking. Coastal areas use seafood. Herbs are used in abundance! There are many herbs known to help support and promote heart health and blood pressure levels!
Don’t expect your general practitioner to know about these studies!
1. (De Lorgeril M, et al. Mediterranean Diet, Traditional risk factors, and the rate of cardiovascular complications after myocardial infarction. Circulation 1999; 99: 779-785)
2. "Coronary heart disease in seven countries". Circulation 41 (4 Suppl): I1–211. April 1970. PMID 5442782.
3. Keys A (Ed). Seven Countries: A multivariate analysis of death and coronary heart disease. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1980. ISBN 0-674-80237-3. 4. Serum cholesterol in cross-cultural perspective. The Seven Countries Study. Kromhout D. Acta Cardiol. 1999 Jun;54(3):155-8.
5. Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A (2008). "Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis". BMJ (Clinical research ed.) 337 (sep11 2): a1344. doi:10.1136/bmj.a1344. PMC 2533524. PMID 18786971.
6. "Anatomy of health effects of Mediterranean diet: Greek EPIC prospective cohort study".
7. Kastorini C-M, Milionis H, Esposito K, Giugliano D, Goudevenos J, Panagiotakos D. (2011). "The Effect of Mediterranean Diet on Metabolic Syndrome and its Components". Journal of the American College of Cardiology 57 (11): 1299–1313. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2010.09.073. PMID 21392646. http://content.onlinejacc.org/cgi/content/abstract/57/11/1299