The Mediterranean Diet: The Best Choice for Heart Health

by Allen J. Taylor, MD, Chairman of Cardiology, MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute
February 26, 2019

We’ve long known that people who eat a healthy diet—which, from a heart health perspective, is low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables—are less likely to develop heart disease. However, with so many ideas online and from well-meaning friends and family, it can be difficult to make the right choice.

But it doesn’t have to be confusing. For optimal heart health, the best option is the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes the consumption of:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • White meat
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Olive oil (for supplementation)
  • Wine (occasionally)

It’s really less of a “diet” than a daily decision to make healthier food and beverage choices. Most people find it easier to sustain than fad diets, such as Atkins or the ketogenic diet, because there is no calorie counting and no severe restrictions. The Mediterranean diet is an evidence-based way to reduce the risk of heart disease, and it often carries the added benefits of increased energy and weight loss.

LISTEN: Dr. Allen J. Taylor discusses heart-healthy diets in the Medical Intel podcast.

Why the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet has been rigorously studied in people with and without heart disease. For example, the PREDIMED study examined about 7,500 individuals without heart disease who were asked to eat either a Mediterranean diet or an otherwise high-quality American diet consisting of low-fat dairy products, pasta, rice, fish, fruits, and vegetables.

When the two groups of participants were compared, the diet led to impressive results in those who followed the Mediterranean diet, including nearly a 20 percent lower risk for heart events and a 30 percent reduction in heart disease risk.

Another great thing about the Mediterranean diet is that, while it discourages things such as soda, commercial baked goods and sweets, spread fats, and red meats, it doesn’t say to never have them. For example, if you are tempted to buy a sweet treat while standing in line at the coffee shop, it’s fine to indulge once in a while. Some diets prohibit these foods, which can discourage patients and lead them to drop the diet altogether.

The #MediterraneanDiet not only is great for #hearthealth, but is relatively easy to follow. While it discourages soda and sweets, it doesn’t say to never indulge. Learn more. https://bit.ly/2Nv6xkH via @MedStarWHC

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Mediterranean Diet vs Other Diets

Weight loss is the goal of many of today’s popular diets. The problem is that many of these diets is that while people often can lose weight quickly, it tends to come right back when the diet ends. And, frankly, we don’t always know the safety of fad diets, such as how they may affect a person’s cholesterol and blood pressure.

Among the most popular fad diets today is the ketogenic diet, which emphasizes avoiding carbohydrates and eating mostly proteins and vegetables. In the short-term, people often lose water weight quickly, and then the weight loss tails off. If you really want to follow an evidence-based diet to reduce heart risk and control your weight, choose the Mediterranean diet.

That said, the focus of the Mediterranean diet is more about heart disease prevention than weight loss. A smaller waist often is happy byproduct. Mathematically, weight loss can be equated to calories in, calories out through food intake and exercise. There are some great, free health apps, such as MyFitnessPal, to help make these calculations. Many patients use them to show us how they’ve identified unhealthy foods that were regularly a part of their diet, and changed their diets to eliminate those foods, which resulted in weight loss.

What Should Patients Ask Their Doctor?

It’s important that patients mention their goals when discussing diet options with their doctor, who can recommend different diets to lose weight or improve heart health. For example, to improve blood pressure, the doctor might recommend the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which reduces sodium and increases potassium and magnesium. Cholesterol, unfortunately, is fairly unresponsive to diet alone, so we usually have to rely on medication as well to keep cholesterol at a healthy level.

A week doesn’t go by where I’m not in the hospital talking to patients about the Mediterranean diet. I hand out copies of the PREDIMED study and summaries of the diet so they can decide on their own whether they want to follow it. Of all the diets out there, the Mediterranean diet is best for reducing heart disease risk.

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Category: Healthy Living, Medical Intel     Tags: dietheartheart-healthmediterranean-diet