The thought of Mediterranean food conjures up images of bread dipped in olive oil, entrees sprinkled with nuts and crumbly cheese and olives by the handful, all merrily washed down with red wine. Why then, considering all that fat and alcohol, is the Mediterranean diet good for the heart?
Nutritionists started studying the Mediterranean diet in the 1960s. At the time, heart disease rates were soaring in the United States, while in parts of Greece and southern Italy, people were enjoying higher life expectancy rates than most of the world—and a diet that was typically almost 40 percent fat.
The mainstay of the diet is olive oil, which is generally used in place of butter, margarine and salad dressing. Unlike its alternatives, olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which doesn’t raise cholesterol levels. It’s also a good source of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
However, there’s more to the Mediterranean diet than this golden elixir. First, there’s a heavy emphasis on fruits, vegetables and fiber. In Greece, it’s not unusual to eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day, including fresh fruit as dessert. That’s a lot of antioxidants and not a lot of calories. Add the pasta, rice
and whole-grain bread that are also staples of the diet, and you’ve got enough fiber to fill you up in a healthy way.
While wine, cheese and nuts are indeed mainstays of traditional Mediterranean fare, they are consumed in moderation, perhaps contrary to the stereotype. Most dietitians suggest one glass of red wine per day for women and two glasses for men, at the very most. (Experts agree that if there’s a reason you’re not currently drinking alcohol, the potential benefits are not a reason to start.) The typical cheeses consumed, such as feta and parmesan, are also generally lower in fat than cheddar, Swiss and American, which are more likely to be found on a Western plate. Nuts are eaten only in small amounts, about a handful’s worth per day.
What’s missing from this diet? Red meat. You won’t find it in the daily food plan, but only as an occasional treat a few times a month. Many meals are plant-based, and fish—baked or broiled—is eaten on a regular basis, as are, to a lesser extent, poultry and eggs.
Finally, people in Greece, southern Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean who are enjoying good health generally have a more active lifestyle than their American counterparts. Even if it’s “good” fat, if it’s 40 percent of your diet, you have to exercise to reap the benefits.
Make a few changes to add a healthy Mediterranean twist to your lifestyle.
- Replace the butter on your bread and the dressing on your salads with olive oil.
- Ramp up your intake of fruits and vegetables.
- Forgo red meat in favor of fish or vegetarian fare.
- Take a brisk walk each day.
Here’s a toast, with a glass of red, to better health.