By swapping animal protein and fats for plant-based foods, and limiting commercially-processed items, we can decrease our risk of many chronic diseases and increase our hearts’ longevity.

Benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Mediterranean Food Oliveoil

One of the most important aspects of maintaining heart health is a balanced diet. Research shows that following the Mediterranean diet decreases risk for heart disease and heart attacks.  Additionally, it helps decrease the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer.  

So how does this work?  We focus on fats. 

  1. The evidence-based Mediterranean diet is rich in plant-based oils and fats called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.  These types of fat lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and raise HDL or “good” cholesterol, which benefits the heart.

    • Monounsaturated fats: Avocados, avocado oil, almonds,  almond butter, olive oil

    • Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 fatty acids: walnuts, peanuts, peanut butter, sunflower, chia and flax seeds, canola oil, safflower oil, fish (wild-caught salmon, sardines, tuna)

  2. A balanced Mediterranean diet consists of mostly plant-based foods, but it encourages fish and lean poultry while limiting red meats and high-fat dairy.  

    • Aim to consume red meat, including beef, lamb, venison, and pork twice a month or less. Red meat has pro-inflammatory properties and high saturated fat content, both of which contribute to heart disease.
    • Portions should be no larger than the palm of your hand.
    • Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy.  Cheese, milk and yogurt are good sources of protein but contain saturated fat.  Portions should be no more than 1 ounce of cheese, 8 ounces of milk, and 6 ounces of yogurt. 
    • Choose turkey and chicken breast as lean poultry. The skin should be discarded due to unhealthy fat content.

  3. Finally, trans fats should be avoided as often as possible, as they are the worst type of fat we encounter. They can be man-made, occur naturally in animal products (meat, dairy) or shortening.  They raise both your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and lower HDL cholesterol – all risk factors for heart disease.

    • Products like cookies, donuts, crackers, commercially-prepared fried foods and snack cakes contain trans fats. 
    • You can spot trans fats on the food label’s ingredient list, disguised as hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil, even if the label says 0g trans fat.     

How can these guidelines be incorporated into our day-to-day lives?  We suggest:

  • Drizzle olive oil on salads or to add flavor to a whole-grain pita sandwich. 
  • For cooking at temperatures over 375° Fahrenheit, use avocado oil as it maintains its healthy fat properties at up to 500° Fahrenheit.
  • Add sliced avocado to a salad or sandwich or atop whole-grain crackers or toast.
  •  Add flax seeds or chia seeds to oatmeal, yogurt or smoothies. 
  • Incorporate fish into a lunch and dinner weekly. 
  • Roast almonds or walnuts at home without adding salt to replace “junk food” snacks like chips and cookies.  Alternatively, try almond butter on whole grain toast or banana.   

Overall, the Mediterranean diet takes a whole-foods based approach to eating healthfully. By swapping animal protein and fats for plant-based foods, and limiting commercially-processed items, we can decrease our risk of many chronic diseases and increase our hearts’ longevity.

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About the Author

Emily Shaber is a registered dietitian, a graduate of Clemson University and an inpatient clinical dietitian at Sentara RMH Medical Center. Emily has four years of experience working with patients with cardiac and renal disease and specializes in critical care nutrition.