We all know diet has a lot to do with maintaining both a healthy weight and a healthy heart. With so many fad diets out there, especially during nutrition month in March, many of my patients come in seeking advice on which diet may be best for them.
We certainly try to match the right diet with the right patient. For instance, a diet very low in fat and cholesterol can be helpful for those at risk for heart disease or stroke, but it’s not very well-suited for individuals who want to lose weight because it may increase their intake of carbohydrates – breads, pasta, potatoes, etc.
But there’s now mounting evidence that eating a Mediterranean diet – a meal plan that focuses on fish, fruits, veggies, nuts and whole grains with a splash of healthy oils and red wine – leads to a longer life span. And I’ve found it a proven balanced diet that does have health benefits.
A 2011 meta-analysis – when a lot of small studies are analyzed together as one set of data – published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at 50 studies covering about 535,000 people to determine the effects of a Mediterranean diet. It found that those who followed it had lower blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides.
The Mediterranean diet has not only been shown to help in prevention of heart disease but also in blood-sugar control and diabetes management as well as weight loss. That’s because it’s a modest amount of refined sugars, and intake of breads, pastas, rice, potatoes, corn and cereal are all limited. There are more mixed nuts and fiber, fruits, vegetables and legumes with limited amounts of dairy products, processed meats and sweets.
It’s not a ketogenic diet that’s high in fat and protein like an Atkins Diet. While the Atkins Diet showed some positive results in studies on blood-sugar control, the problem was that it wasn’t longstanding and sustained. People would fluctuate with their weight and overall health. The Mediterranean diet has plenty of carbohydrates, too, but it’s just getting them from fruits, vegetables, legumes, salads and nuts, which is a much better source.
There are different forms of the Mediterranean diet, some suggesting that red meats are fine and others prohibiting red meats. As for me, I believe that a lean red meat – such as a filet or one of the better cuts – is OK for most people to eat in moderation.
In spite of all the proven health benefits from the Mediterranean diet, it may not be for everyone, though. Especially here in Northeastern Pennsylvania we consume a lot of breads, pastas, rice, potatoes, corns and cereals. And with the Mediterranean diet, we want to decrease those and increase the more complex carbohydrates coming from the “better” sources.
The benefits of the Mediterranean diet, however, definitely make the habit changes worth the effort. Further studies that included more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a significant decrease in heart disease. It also showed a tendency to reduce the risk of cancer and even reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
But with any diet, keep in mind that it’s important to exercise, keep food logs, get weighed once a week, drink water and avoid high-carb, high-fat, high-calorie, low-value beverages such as sports drinks, energy drinks and coffee with creamer. And remember, there’s no magic pill – or nut in this case – or diet that’s going to offset a healthy lifestyle. Still, the Mediterranean diet may be a good first step … AND DON’T SMOKE!