Could diet work better than medications for preventing heart disease? Some research suggests that eating a Mediterranean diet could slow or even reverse the progression of cardiovascular disease even better than taking prescription medications. Plus, a dietary approach has other health benefits as well.
Mediterranean Diet and Heart Disease
The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest diets in the world. It’s an eating pattern inspired by the dietary traditions of the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods, nuts, and fish as well as modest amounts of red wine while de-emphasizing dairy and red meat. A traditional Mediterranean diet also includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and red wine.
People on a Mediterranean diet enjoy moderate amounts of olive oil, which is a source of healthy monounsaturated fats. They eat few processed foods or foods high in sugar. Their snack of choice is more likely to be a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit than a sugary pastry. Ultra-processed foods are kept to a minimum with this eating approach.
Some doctors already recommend a Mediterranean-style diet to patients at risk for heart disease, but now there’s even more reason to give the thumbs up to eating a Mediterranean diet.
The Heart Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Researchers at the University of Navarra in Spain looked at the effects of a Mediterranean diet on heart disease progression. For the study, they recruited people who had moderately thickened arterial walls due to early heart disease.
They assigned the participants to one of three groups. One group ate a Mediterranean diet that included 30 grams of nuts a day. A second group also ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 15 liters of virgin olive oil daily. A third group ate a low-fat diet.
When they measured the thickness of their arterial walls at the end of the study, they discovered that the participants who ate the Mediterranean diet with added virgin olive oil or nuts had less thickening of their arterial walls.
In fact, the researchers pointed out that the regression noted in the participants eating a Mediterranean diet was greater than what doctors typically see with medications. They also showed improvements in their lipid profiles.
The Good Fats in the Mediterranean Diet
One reason the Mediterranean diet is so heart-healthy is the type of fat it contains. Olive oil and nuts are rich in monounsaturated fats. These fats are “good fats” because they lower LDL cholesterol levels and have other favorable effects on blood lipids. In addition, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes other healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which are also beneficial for heart health.
The Mediterranean diet is also rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that contribute to heart health. Arteries become thickened because of chronic, low-grade inflammation, and a Mediterranean diet helps to offset this. Eating a Mediterranean diet is a natural, drug-free way to lower the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
Other Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
Along with reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer, the Mediterranean diet shows promise for mental health and cognitive function. The Mediterranean diet is high in healthy fats, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, and low in saturated fats and sugar. This type of diet has been shown to promote a healthy weight, lower blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels, both of which help to preserve brain health.
In a study published on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website, researchers looked at imaging studies of middle-aged adults who ate a Mediterranean diet or a Western diet and repeated the scans after two years on their respective diets. The scans showed that people who ate a Mediterranean diet had less accumulation of beta-amyloid deposits in the brain compared to those who ate the Western diet.
Beta-amyloid proteins (Aβ) are a type of protein that is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. These proteins are thought to play a role in the development and progression of the disease. They form plaques that disrupt healthy brain function. The brains of subjects who ate the Western diet also showed less energy use by the brain, which could be indicative of worse brain health.
Simple Tips for Eating a Mediterranean Diet
- Include seafood in your menu (twice per week). Choose low-mercury, fatty fish, like wild-caught salmon.
- Focus on fruits and vegetables as side dishes rather than starchy carbohydrates, like rice and pasta
- Choose olive oil over butter for cooking, dressings, and dips
- Use herbs and spices to flavor meat dishes.
- Limit red meat and replace it with poultry, seafood, or plant-based alternatives
- Snack on nuts and seeds rather than chips
- Limit processed foods and sugar.
- Eliminate or limit ultra-processed foods.
- Make nutrient-dense food choices and avoid junk food.
Eating a Mediterranean diet has lots of health benefits, and, based on this study, could slow down the progression of heart disease or even reverse it. It’s a diet that offers an abundance of healthy, unprocessed foods that can improve the health of your heart and help you live longer. Talk to your doctor about the health benefits of this amazing diet and see if it’s right for you. Even if they still recommend medications, a Mediterranean diet can still offer benefits.
There are so many delicious recipes to enjoy as part of the Mediterranean diet. Why not explore some new ones? Trying new recipes is a great way to add variety to your diet and make healthy eating more interesting. There are many resources available online and in cookbooks to help you find new Mediterranean recipes to enjoy. Have fun exploring this diverse and nutrient-dense style of eating!
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- “Mediterranean diet for heart health – Mayo Clinic.” 23 Jul. 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801.
- “Mediterranean diet may slow development of Alzheimer’s disease.” https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/mediterranean-diet-may-slow-development-alzheimers-disease.