The Mediterranean diet and heart health

By Sarah Noone Nutrition News   |   19th Jul 2019

The Mediterranean diet has long been hailed as the heart healthy diet, but where did it come from and what does it look like? Our expert dietitian Sarah Noone investigates.

Interest in the Mediterranean diet dates back to the 1960s, when it began to emerge that people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, like Spain, Italy and Greece, had lower risks factors for cardiovascular disease. The evidence was so striking that people living in these countries have been the subject of numerous research studies for more than 50 years.

What does the research say?

Research around the Mediterranean diet has shown that people on this diet have a reduced risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol, all of which are all risk factors for heart disease.

Additional studies have also found evidence that people who closely follow a Mediterranean style diet have a reduced risk of cancer, being an unhealthy weight, depression and are more likely to live a longer life. However, it must be remembered that the Mediterranean diet is not just a diet, it also includes a number of lifestyle factors such as, increased physical activity and smoking cessation, all of which have also been shown to be important to reduce the risk of chronic disease.

In terms of the research it appears that it is the overall dietary pattern of the Mediterranean diet that makes it such a heart healthy way to eat rather than individual dietary components.

However, nutritional science is constantly evolving so it may eventually come to light that certain foods have greater significance that others when it comes to heart health. But by focusing on individual dietary components it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, a whole diet approach offers a more helpful way of looking at our eating habits and choices.

" The Mediterranean diet is not just a diet, it also includes a number of lifestyle factors such as, increased physical activity,"

Sarah Noone, Dietitian , Irish Heart Foundation

What is the Mediterranean diet?

At its core, the Mediterranean diet is an entire dietary pattern rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, olive oils, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes in addition to oily fish. It also contains moderate amounts of dairy while consumption of red and processed meats along with sweets, is low. The Mediterranean diet is high in good fats (mostly monounsaturated fats that have been shown to lower cholesterol levels) which come from nuts, seeds and olive oils.

The bottom line

– Eat more vegetables, fruit, salad, beans, peas and lentils
– Focus on your good fats replacing your butter, lard, ghee with plant and seed-based oils such as olive and rapeseed which can help lower cholesterol levels. Also incorporating nuts and seeds into your diet is a great way to up your intake of heart healthy fats.
– Reduce down your intake of red (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (sausages, bacon, burgers) and opt for fish, beans and pulses as good heart healthy protein alternatives
– Choose whole grains such as brown rice, wholegrain breads, barley, oats and quinoa instead of refined carbohydrates such as white bread or breakfast cereals high in added sugar
– Flavour food with spices, herbs, garlic and onions instead of salt
– Alcohol (if you drink) keep to within moderation
– Limit sweets such as cakes, pastries, desserts and sugar sweetened drinks

For more information and advice on ways to live better for your heart please see here.

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