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Mediterranean Diet and Atherosclerosis: Why the Mediterranean Diet is the Best Choice for Heart Health

Mediterranean Diet

The word “diet” has a negative connotation. In fact, it’s a word you might want to purge from your vocabulary. No wonder! The word diet conjures up images of hunger, deprivation, and unhealthy fad diets people adopt to lose weight fast and often lead to frustration and hunger. Not a pretty picture, right?

But there’s one type of eating plan that offers diversity, flavor and is naturally nutrient-dense. It’s the Mediterranean diet, the traditional diet that people from countries along the Mediterranean Sea enjoy in abundance. This area and the people who eat this diet enjoy exceptional health and longevity. If you think there’s something we can learn from them about heart health and longevity, you’re right.

What is a Mediterranean Diet?

A Mediterranean diet is the antithesis of the highly processed diet that people in Western countries eat in abundance. This diverse eating style that originates from the Mediterranean shores emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fish. Although not low in fat, the Mediterranean diet is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats, like those in olive oil, avocados, and some nuts, such as macadamia nuts.

It’s not uncommon for people who consume this diet to enjoy modest quantities of alcohol, usually red wine. However, they don’t drink alcohol in abundance. It’s rare for people in Mediterranean countries who follow the traditional diet to eat ultra-processed foods or significant amounts of sugar.

Mediterranean Diet and Atherosclerosis: Heart Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

One reason people who eat a Mediterranean diet have exceptional longevity is that the Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy and may lower the risk of atherosclerosis, the build-up of calcium and plaque inside the arteries, the most common cause of cardiovascular disease and heart attack.

Why is plaque build-up so concerning? The risk is that the plaque inside plaque-laden arteries may rupture and cause a heart attack or stroke. In the past, cardiologists promoted a low-fat diet, but a Mediterranean diet, despite its higher fat content, may be a better choice for heart health.

In one study called the PREDIMED study, researchers compared two styles of the Mediterranean diet to a low-fat diet. The participants were 7,447 middle-aged and older adults who were healthy but at high risk of cardiovascular disease due to genetics, medical history, or lifestyle. The subjects followed one of three diets (two Mediterranean styles and one low-fat) for almost 5 years.

The results? The participants who followed either of the Mediterranean diets had a 30% lower risk of developing a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, relative to the group who followed a low-fat diet.

You might think that fat would be harmful to your heart, but the type of fat makes a difference. The Mediterranean diet is rich in long-chain omega-3s, a fat linked with a lower risk of heart attacks, and offers protection against certain types of irregular heart rhythms. Plus, monounsaturated fat, a heart-healthy fat, has favorable effects on blood lipids. In contrast, low-fat diets are often higher in sugar and high-carbohydrate fillers.

The Role of Inflammation

A Mediterranean eating plan also reduces other markers of higher cardiovascular risk, including blood pressure and inflammatory markers. Inflammation contributes to cardiovascular disease by damaging the inner walls of blood vessels. When the inner wall is injured, it increases the risk of a clot forming and triggering a heart attack or stroke.

Inflammation may also enhance the build-up of new plaque inside the artery wall. In fact, cardiologists now believe that inflammation plays a key role in atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Some studies show that the Mediterranean diet reduces blood markers of inflammation.

A Mediterranean Eating Plan May Lower the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Too

Type 2 diabetes is a growing epidemic in Western countries. Almost 9% of the population has it, and many don’t know it, but it causes damage, nevertheless. Diabetes is harmful to every organ in the body and also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, almost half of diabetics die of heart disease.

How can a Mediterranean diet be beneficial? The Mediterranean diet with its abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts is rich in fiber, which helps with blood glucose control. Because it emphasizes whole foods, it’s more satisfying than a processed foods diet, so you eat less and still feel satisfied.

One study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet had better blood sugar control, lower body weight, and a healthier waist-to-hip ratio, a marker of health and a lower risk of mortality from all causes. All that from making smarter dietary choices! In fact, the Mediterranean diet is the eating plan many doctors and other health care professionals recommend to patients.

The Mediterranean Diet, Mortality, and Longevity

Some research links the Mediterranean diet with lower mortality from all causes, but mainly from reduced atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. In fact, a large prospective study found that subjects who heeled a Mediterranean diet had reduced mortality overall. That’s good news if you want to live a long life.

How to Get Started

Grab a Mediterranean cookbook and explore the many delicious recipes that will lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, boost heart health, and tantalize your taste buds at the same time. With this style of eating, you can enjoy a wide range of foods without feeling hungry or deprived. You’ll be dazzled by the delicious, whole foods you can enjoy when you eat Mediterranean style. So, do something good for your heart and explore the benefits of adopting a Mediterranean eating style.

 

References:

  • FASEB J. 21(13): 3511-21.
  • org. “Study Confirms the Heart Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet”
  • Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(22):2461-2468. doi:10.1001/archinte.167.22.2461
  • Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. BMJ 2008; 337: a1344. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a1344.
  • Gretchen Benson, RD, LD, CDE, Raquel Franzini Pereira, MS, RD, LD and Jackie L. Boucher, MS, RD, LD, CDE.
  • Am J Clin Nutr 89:248-256, 2009.
  • Diabetes Spectrum 2011 Feb; 24(1): 36-40.
  • 2018 Jan; 10(1): 62.Published online 2018 Jan 10. doi: 10.3390/nu10010062.

 

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5 Ways a Mediterranean Diet Lowers the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

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