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Heart disease prevention: The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Dr Sandro Demaio

5 minute read
Dr Sandro Demaio standing in front of a windowCredit: Cath Muscat

A plate of grilled sardines, a side of garlicky butter beans, some local feta cheese and a bunch of herby, fresh greens tossed in extra virgin olive oil – now that is a meal packed full of flavour! But did you know it also has the power to reduce your risk of a heart attack, lower your cholesterol and even reduce inflammation? This is because a meal based on the principles of the Mediterranean diet is backed by science as an eating approach that can help you live a healthier, longer and more delicious life.

Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, impacts one in six Australians. It is one of the leading causes of mortality, with close to 45,000 deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease in 2017. On an individual level, your risk of cardiovascular disease increases as you age and is also dependent on your family history. But in addition to age and genetics, there are six modifiable risk factors you can talk about with your GP and address today to reduce your lifetime risk.

Stroke and heart disease risk factors

  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having high blood cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Having type 2 diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese, and
  • Not getting enough physical activity
A plate with fish, potatoes and vegetables

While these risk factors are very common, the good news is that they can all be addressed through a range of healthy habits that you can begin today. Whether walking to work, gardening on weekends or even joining a yoga class, ensuring we get 30-60 minutes of movement each day is an important first step. Combine exercise with avoiding tobacco, and you are already well on your way to a healthier heart. Once these two factors are ticked off, the remaining four can be addressed with one powerful and delicious tool – your diet.

The Mediterranean diet has been enjoyed since the Middle Ages; however, it was in the 1950s that the diet sparked the interest of health professionals. They noticed a difference in health among those living in poorer Italian towns compared to others living in wealthier New York. Although less wealthy, the Italians who were enjoying a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, seeds, fresh vegetables and fruit, legumes and whole grains with moderate amounts of natural dairy products and small amounts of good quality meat were healthier and experienced lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Since then, a mountain of research has been conducted to conclude that a diet based on the traditional Mediterranean way of eating is indeed a recipe for better heart health.

Nutritionally, the Mediterranean diet is packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and lean protein. It is effective as it is low in saturated fats, trans fats, salt and added sugar - all of which are associated with higher disease risk. Conversely, it is high in fibre, antioxidants, and unsaturated fats which are protective for your heart, blood vessels and brain. But rather than getting caught up in the detailed nutritional science, the easiest way to achieve the Mediterranean way of eating is to understand a simple but delicious set of principles.

A man teaching a young boy how to prune a bush

Mediterranean diet health benefits:

  • Eat ingredients, not products

By choosing whole foods, you naturally avoid the high amounts of salt, sugar and saturated fats commonly found in processed, packaged foods.

  • Start with fruit and veg and build up

Loving your fruits and vegetables is one of the best things you can do for your heart, so make them the hero of every meal. Fill your plate up with vegetables first and enjoy at least two pieces of fruit each day.

  • Make meat an ‘every now and then’ food

Eat like the Mediterranean by enjoying meat in small portions and making it an occasional treat rather than something you eat every day. When you do enjoy it, fish should be your top pick followed by lean white meat such as chicken.

  • Eat a diverse range of legumes and grains three to four times a week

From multigrain toast to falafel, each legume and grain you enjoy has a different nutrient profile for you to benefit from; the more diverse your choices, the better. Whole grains are also loaded with fibre that helps to reduce blood cholesterol and maintain a healthy weight.

  • Snack on nuts

Aim for a small handful of nuts every two to three days to benefit from their heart-healthy nutrients including vitamin E and omega 3 fats.

  • Choose good fats

Dress your salads in olive oil, eat oily fish and add avocados to your breakfast plate. The unsaturated, healthy fats including omega 6s and omega 3s found in these foods are essential for a healthy heart and body.

  • Use aromatic herbs, onion and garlic

Not only do these foods provide wonderful flavour (without the need for salt) but they also contribute beneficial nutrients to your diet.

  • When it comes to dairy, aim for quality not quantity

Choose local and plain yoghurt, fresh milk and cheeses and enjoy them in moderation, two to three times a week.

By following this basic set of principles which are grounded in the science and history of the Mediterranean diet, you can protect your heart, reduce your risks of cardiovascular disease and benefit from food that is rich in nutrients and most importantly, flavour.

Please note: the tips throughout this article serve as broad advice and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

For more from Dr Sandro Demaio, check out The Check Up’s dedicated section.

Co-host of the ABC TV series ‘Ask the Doctor’ , author of 30 scientific papers and ‘The Doctor’s Diet’ (a cookbook based on science), Dr Sandro Demaio is an Aussie medical doctor and global expert on non-communicable diseases.

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