Mediterranean diet gets more props

Results from a new study on twins adds to the growing body of evidence that a Mediterranean style diet is good for heart health.  For men who ate a Mediterranean-style diet, the biologic system that controls heart rate worked better compared to men who ate a typical Western diet.  Why is this important for heart health?  A healthy heart can easily adjust to beat at varying rates throughout the day, in response to different activities: slower while sitting, higher when walking, etc.  The more Mediterranean the diet, the more easily heart rate could vary.

Mediterranean-style food pyramid

It’s interesting that this study was done in the US, where a full-blown Mediterranean-style diet would be rare.  Yet, while this is one more piece of good news about the Mediterranean diet, researchers still don’t know precisely why this diet is beneficial.  Likely, there are multiple good effects.  Also likely: the benefits are from the whole diet, not just one particular food like olive oil or red wine.

Mediterranean eating is a whole lot more than olive oil and red wine.  For one thing, it’s low sugar.  Sweets and desserts are limited, not a daily part of life.  A giant mocha latte with whipped cream would not be part of  Mediterranean diet.  Nor would diet soda pop or “lite” ice cream.  The other major difference with Western diets is the low priority put on meat and animal products.  Meat is used as a condiment, in small portions, in casseroles or mixed dishes.  Fish is far more common, eaten daily in some places.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans are also daily fare.  Olive oil is used for cooking and salads; butter and other animal fats are almost never used in traditional Mediterranean dishes.  Yoghurt and cheeses are more likely to come from sheep or goat milk.

If you wanted to make your diet more Mediterranean, there are some simple and reasonable changes you can make without resorting to unusual foods that you don’t enjoy:

Plan your meals around vegetables and whole grains, not on giant slabs of meat.

Cut back on sweets

Stick to fish, chicken or lean red meats

Use olive oil, canola oil or other vegetable oils for cooking, and for vinaigrette-type salad dressings

Choose whole grain breads and bakery products

Find more ways to include beans and nuts in your daily meals.  Add beans to salads, soups or casseroles.  Use nut butters instead of butter or margarine on bread and snack on a handful of nuts instead of on chips or sweets.

You don’t have to move to Greece, or invest in an entire diet make-over to increase your Mediterranean diet score.  There are plenty of other ideas on how to make changes, from cookbooks to websites like Oldways.  Harvard School of Public Health developed this alternative food pyramid based on Mediterranean diet principles.   Make the simplest changes first.  My recommendation for those giving the most health bang for the buck: cut back on sweets and cut down on meat portions.  Fill in with vegetables and whole grains.  Use olive oil.  And if you enjoy red wine, so much the better.

Some Mediterranean-like items you may already be eating:

  • hummus with pita bread and chopped vegetables
  • hearty vegetable soup with beans
  • vegetable stir fry with chicken, on brown rice
  • mixed greens and veggie salad with grated cheese and olive oil vinaigrette
  • peanut butter on whole grain toast with fresh fruit and yoghurt
  • turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, with plenty of vegetable condiments and a side of fresh fruit
  • broiled or grilled salmon, baked potato, steamed broccoli.

You get the picture.  It’s not a mysterious diet with weird food choices.

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