When the heart disease rate in the United States was skyrocketing during the early 1960s, people in Greece had some of the lowest heart disease rates in the world. But the most remarkable fact about this is that they were enjoying this robust good health even though their diet racked up nearly 40% of its calories from fat plus they generally washed down their meals with a glass or two of wine. |
Scientist searched the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and they discovered that it was not only the Greece people who were living longer but also in neighboring nations like France, Italy and Spain. Clearly, these folks were onto something, but what?
Here is what Christopher Gardner, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention research Center in Stanford, California has to say about it: “For one thing, the traditional Mediterranean diet includes a lot of vegetables and legumes, along with fruits,fresh whole-grain breads, dates, and nuts. Meats like lamb and chicken are consumed infrequently and in small portions,and the main source of fat in the diet is monounsaturated fat from olives and olive oil, rather than the saturated fat from animal foods. In addition, physical activity is a big part of their daily routine”, he adds.
But just how healthy is the traditional Mediterranean diet? In one study French researchers looked at 600 men who recently had a heart attack. They put half of the men on a traditional Mediterranean diet and half of them on a low-fat, low cholesterol diet that people with heart disease are typically told to follow. Those who followed the traditional Mediterranean diet had a 70% lower rate of recurrent heart problems than those following the prudent low-fat diet.
Other studies showed similar results. When researchers examined the diets and disease rates of people in seven different countries, they found that, while heart disease accounts for 46% of deaths of middle-aged men in America, only 4% of men on Creta, an island in the Mediterranean Sea,had similar problems. In fact, the death rate from all causes in Creta during this 15 year study was lower than that of the other countries
In 2006, researchers reviewed 35 experimental studies of the Mediterranean diet and found that the diet had a positive effect on cholesterol and insulin resistance. Researchers also found that the diet also lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome, heart attack and heart disease, and the risk of cancer in obese patients and patients who have had a heart attack.
One study found that, in addition to the health benefits. people find it easier to stick to a Mediterranean diet compared with a low fat diet. A group of 772 older adults in Spain who had diabetes or three or more risk factors for heart disease were assigned to one of three groups. Two groups followed a Mediterranean diet, and the third followed a low- fat diet. In addition to the Mediterranean diet contributing to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels after three months, it also made it easier for the study participants to maintain the diet, researchers say.
The Fat Factor The most important factor in the Mediterranean diet is that it uses fat from olive oil, with total fat intake of 25 to 35 percent of total calories. Even though people in Mediterranean countries eat as much fat as we do (or more), they eat relatively little meat. Red meat is eaten only a few times a month, while fish and poultry are eaten every week.
This means that they consume only minuscule amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat. “The big difference comes from limiting saturated fat and replacing it with monounsaturated fat, like olive oil,” Dr Gardner says. Besides olive oil being a monounsaturated fat, it also contains antioxidant compounds that help prevent chemical changes in the body that can cause the dangerous low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol to stick to the lining of artery walls. Sweet desserts made with sugar and saturated fat are consumed no more than few times a week.
The second-most common source of fats in the Mediterranean diet is nuts and seeds. Nuts contain alpha-linolenic acid, which the body converts to the same kind of heart-healthy fats we find in fish ( which is also part of the Mediterranean diet). Studies have proved that people who eat the most of these fatty-acids are the ones least likely to get heart disease.
The fish that people in the Mediterranean eat contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce clotting and inflammation in the arteries, and thus significantly reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association reports that epidemiological and clinical trials have shown that cardiovascular disease incidence decreases when people consume omega-3 fatty acids, especially when it comes from fish and plant foods as apposed to supplements.
Physical activity People in Mediterranean countries also take plenty of exercise, in the form of walking, hard physical labor, and generally stay active. So even though they take a lot of calories from fat, they’re usually able to keep their weight under control.
Five-a-Day Protection The folks at the American Heart Association would be delighted if they could get us to eat the five servings (or more) of fruits and vegetables that people in the Mediterranean region eat every day. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes seasonally fresh and locally grown fruits and vegetables over highly processed foods that don’t contain as many micro nutrients and antioxidants. Studies have shown that people who eat the most fruit and vegetables have fewer problems with heart disease. Presumably this is due to the antioxidant vitamins and healing compounds in these foods.
In addition, fruits, vegetables and beans, which are another Mediterranean staple, are among the best sources of folate, a B vitamin that may work hard in the fight against heart disease, says D. Gardner. Folate helps decrease levels of an amino acid called homosysteine. There is a link between too much homosysteine and heart disease. Research has shown that healthy people who have high levels of homosysteine have about 14 times more change of having heart disease
High Fiber On top of all that, the Mediterranean diet is extremely high in fiber. High-fiber foods not only help to keep your weight down by filling you up without a lot of fat and calories, they also help block the absorption of certain fats and cholesterol. This means that some of these harmful substances are flushed away before they can make it into the bloodstream. How powerful the effects of fiber are shows a study of nearly 44,000 men, aged between 40 and 75, who added just 10 grams of fiber a day to their diet decreased their risk of heart disease by almost 30 percent.
A Drink for Good Health Another factor that contribute to a healthy heart is the fact that wine, and especially red wine, is also included in a typical Mediterranean diet. Whine contains compounds called phenols that help prevent LDL cholesterol from sticking to artery walls. It also keeps platelets in blood from sticking together and causing clots. “In moderation, wine can be a nice addition to a healthy diet,” says Robert M. Russell, MD, director and senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
Final Thoughts Although the Mediterranean diet is most renowned for its role in helping to keep the heart healthy, it also appears to reduce the risks of other health threats, among them cancer of the breast and colon. Studies show that compared with women elsewhere in the world, women in some Mediterranean countries half half the risk (or less) of getting breast cancer. This could be due to their low intake of saturated fat and high intake of monounsaturated fats, fruits and vegetables.
Indeed, Italian researchers have found that people in the Mediterranean region who follow the traditional diet – that is, those who eat lots of fruits and vegetables and not much fat and protein – are less likely to get cancer than those who eat more modern, less-healthful diets.
“The message here is simple,” says Dr. Gardner. “For optimal health, choose a plant-based diet, which is naturally high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium.”
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