It’s one of the most diverse diets in the world. The Mediterranean diet offers variety but also a multitude of potential health benefits. In fact, some of the longest living populations in the world eat a traditional Mediterranean diet. What’s more, evidence suggests that eating Mediterranean style lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, the most common cause of death in Western countries.
How do we know this? A large study called the NHLBI Women’s Health study highlights the potential cardiovascular benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet. This study looked at the eating habits of 25,000 health professionals. It linked consuming a Mediterranean diet with a 25% reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
As with most nutrition studies, the results only show a link, not necessarily causation. But, when you add the results to previous research looking at the Mediterranean diet and heart health, you, too, will be convinced that going Mediterranean is good for your heart.
In addition, studies show that the Mediterranean eating style is associated with a reduced risk of other chronic health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease, type two diabetes, and some forms of cancer. But how does eating Mediterranean style offer these benefits? Here are some of the ways a Mediterranean diet may improve heart health and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
By Reducing Inflammation
Research shows that chronic, low-grade inflammation inside the walls of blood vessels is a contributing factor to the development of cardiovascular disease. Inflammation damages the walls of arteries and changes the surface in a way that makes it more likely that a blood clot will form. When a clot grows inside a coronary artery that delivers blood to the heart, it cuts off blood supply to the heart and leads to a medical emergency, a heart attack. The decrease in blood flow usually damages the muscle of the heart and makes it a less efficient pump. In severe cases, a heart attack can lead to death. One of the ways that statin medications lower the risk of heart attack is by reducing inflammation. So, it’s clear that inflammation plays a key role in the development of cardiovascular disease.
How does the Mediterranean diet reign in inflammation? Researchers don’t know for sure. However, studies show lower levels of key inflammatory markers in people who eat a predominately Mediterranean – style diet. The Mediterranean diet is rich in foods that fight oxidative stress and inflammation, including fish, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. The antioxidant-rich nature of these foods may explain its anti-inflammatory benefits.
A Favorable Impact on Blood Lipids
The Mediterranean diet does more than fight inflammation. Eating this style of diet also lowers the level of oxidized LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. Oxidized LDL is damaging to the inner wall of the artery. Plus, consuming a Mediterranean diet reduces triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream. Triglycerides don’t get as much attention as LDL – cholesterol does, but high triglycerides are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Triglycerides increase in the blood with a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, & saturated fat. A Mediterranean – style diet emphasizes unrefined, fiber-rich carbohydrates and healthy, monounsaturated fat like those in nuts and olive oil. These dietary components have a favorable effect on blood lipids.
By Lowering the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Poor blood sugar control is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Even slightly high blood sugars increase the risk of cardiovascular events. Well, there’s good news on that front! Research shows adhering closely to a Mediterranean diet is correlated with improvements in insulin sensitivity and better blood sugar control. In fact, the Mediterranean diet has the potential to reverse prediabetes.
By Helping with Weight Control
Obesity is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Being extremely overweight is unhealthy to the heart in a number of ways. People who are obese have a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and lipid abnormalities. Plus, stored fat produces inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that boost blood vessel-damaging inflammation. Visceral fat, the type of fat that builds up in the abdominal cavity and increases waist size, is most strongly linked with chronic health problems, like cardiovascular disease. Ideally, your waist size should be no larger than half your height.
By Adding Key Micronutrients
Certain micronutrients, especially potassium and magnesium, play a key role in heart health. Diets rich in potassium help with blood pressure control, as does the mineral magnesium. Both are abundant in vegetables, particularly leafy greens. Most of the magnesium that isn’t stored in bone is concentrated in the heart and brain. This shows how important it is to the healthy function of these organs. In addition, an analysis of multiple studies shows an inverse link between magnesium consumption and the risk of developing coronary artery disease.
How to Consume a Mediterranean Diet
Unlike fad diets, the classic Mediterranean diet is overflowing with possibilities. This style of eating emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, and modest amounts of red wine. Fish and modest amounts of poultry take the place of red meat. Of course, you can also enjoy a variety of plant-based protein sources on a Mediterranean diet. When you eat a Mediterranean diet, you reduce the quantity of processed and packaged foods and the sugar content of your diet. These are all favorable for heart health. There’s growing evidence that the sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and cheap oils used to manufacture ultra-processed foods contribute to heart disease.
The Bottom Line
The Mediterranean diet has been deemed one of the healthiest on earth and indulging in the rich abundance it offers may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, you know why!
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• NIH National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute .” How the Mediterranean diet lowers risk of cardiovascular disease”
• UHN Daily. “Mediterranean Diet Can Lower Triglycerides Naturally”
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• Nutrients. 2018 Feb; 10(2): 168.