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The Mediterranean Diet for Heart Health

The Mediterranean Diet - Healthier Than Low-Fat or Low-Carb

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Updated February 24, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It appears that the great low-fat vs. low carb controversy is at last coming to a resolution. So, which of these diets turns out to be better for heart health? As it turns out, neither. Instead, much of the information that has come to light over the last few years points toward a third diet as being best for a healthy heart: the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet can be thought of as a compromise between the classic low-fat and low-carb diets, taking the best features of each, and leaving aside the worst.

The "Mediterranean diet" is named for the southern European region near the Mediterranean Sea, where this pattern of eating is part of the traditional culture (but where, unfortunately, modern Western eating habits have been making inroads in recent decades). It consists of lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, pasta, whole grains, olive and canola oil, nuts, seafood, and a little red wine.

Evidence has been accumulating for about a decade now that the Mediterranean diet is quite good for heart health. That evidence has now become compelling. For instance, in a huge clinical study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the AARP, almost 400,000 participants were "scored" according to their adherence to a typical Mediterranean diet, then followed for 5 years. Both men and women whose eating patterns strongly resembled a Mediterranean diet had a 20% reduced chance of dying from cardiovascular disease. Men who were on a Mediterranean diet also had a 20% lower risk of cancer; women on the diet also had a somewhat reduced risk of cancer.

How Does the Mediterranean Diet Work?

Rather than restricting the broad categories, "fats" or "carbohydrates," the Mediterranean diet stresses healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates, and avoids unhealthy fats and carbohydrates. The healthy fats -- monounsaturated fats -- come from olive and canola oils, nuts, and fish. The healthy carbohydrates come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. This combination of foods is rich in antioxidants, and in omega-3 fatty acids.

Accordingly, studies have shown that people on the Mediterranean diet have improved blood glucose levels, improved blood pressures, improved cholesterol values, and a reduced risk of developing metabolic syndrome, when compared to people on poor diets, or even on low-fat diets.

Tips For Following a Mediterranean Diet

  • Avoid red meat. Use fish (preferable) or chicken instead, along with legumes, as a protein source.
  • Eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables, fresh whenever possible.
  • Cook only with olive oil or canola oil.
  • Eat whole grain breads and pasta
  • Eat a handful of nuts daily -- walnuts, almonds, pecans and Brazil nuts have actual clinical data to back up their health benefits.
  • Avoid baked goods.
  • Avoid butter and products containing trans fats.
  • Limit (or better, eliminate) fat-containing dairy products.
  • A glass of red wine (but no more than one glass per day) can also be beneficial to heart health. You should probably check with your doctor about this one.

Sources:

Mitrou PN, Kipnis V. Thiebaut AC, et al. Mediterranean dietary pattern and prediction of all-cause mortality in a US population: results from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Arch Intern Med. 2007 Dec 10;167(22):2461-8.

Salas-Salvadó J, Fernández-Ballart J, Ros E, et al. Effect of a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts on metabolic syndrome status. Arch Intern Med 2008; 168: 2449-2458.

Covas MI, et al. Effect of a traditional Mediterranean diet on lipoprotein oxidation: A randomized, controlled trial. European Atherosclerosis Society 76th Congress; June 11, 2007; Helsinki, Finland.

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