Do you enjoy homemade tomato sauces, olive oil, berries, and salads fresh from the garden? If so, you might already be eating the Mediterranean way.
Unlike many other diets, the Mediterranean eating pattern focuses on what you can eat and not what you should limit. Followers of the Mediterranean Diet eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and moderate portions of whole grains, fish and poultry, healthy fats, and dairy products. A glass of wine is also encouraged for its heart-healthy benefits.
Based on the traditional foods of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (like Greece, France, Spain, and Italy), the Mediterranean Diet can help you stay healthy and maintain your weight. The Mediterranean Foods Alliance is a great resource for finding out the particulars of this terrific way of eating.
Why is the Mediterranean Diet Heart Healthy?
Since the early 1990s, the Mediterranean Diet has been regarded as a heart-healthy alternative to the standard American diet, which is heavy in processed foods and saturated fats. Recent research is continuing to contribute to our understanding of why those who eat this way have lower rates of heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from heart disease.
- High in Antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals that reduce cell damage and lower the risk of disease. A 2013 study published in Food Chemistry analyzed different types of Mediterranean sofritos, which are similar to homemade tomato sauces. The researchers found that many of the sauces they analyzed contained 40 different types of polyphenols (a specific type of antioxidant) that are linked with lower rates of heart disease and other conditions. Interestingly, the researchers also found that the homemade tomato sauces had higher antioxidant levels than the individual ingredients alone.
- High in Healthy Unsaturated Fats. The Mediterranean Diet includes primarily healthy fats from olive oil, avocados, and nuts. These foods are high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids that can help lower LDL and overall cholesterol levels, especially when they replace saturated or trans fats in our diets. A 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study also found that the more nuts that people eat each day, the lower their risk of heart and respiratory disease, cancer, and death. Those who follow the Mediterranean Diet also eat fish every week. Fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, albacore tuna, and salmon are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Higher consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is linked with lower triglyceride and blood pressure levels, and better blood vessel health.
- High in Fiber. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are excellent sources of fiber and are filling and satisfying. Unprocessed whole grains are also an important part of Mediterranean-style eating. A study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition reviewed a number of studies and found that those who eat three or more portions of whole grains each day have a 20- to 30-percent lower risk of developing heart disease compared to those who eat few servings of grains.
Eat the Rainbow
The foundation of the Mediterranean Diet rests on abundant fruits and vegetables. Choosing a rainbow of produce provides the widest variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber––making the Mediterranean eating style heart-healthy. Each color provides different, delicious benefits.
Red: Cherries, pink grapefruit, strawberries, pomegranates, raspberries, watermelon, tomatoes, and red bell peppers are just a few of the many red fruits and vegetables you can choose. Tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit are high in lycopene, an antioxidant that gives these foods their color and is associated with lower risk of heart disease. Try cooking tomatoes with a little heart-healthy fat to increase your absorption of lycopene.
Orange: Apricots, nectarines, oranges, papaya, carrots, and sweet potatoes are orange fruits and vegetables that can help us meet our nutrient needs. Citrus fruits, including oranges and tangerines, are high in flavonoids, a type of antioxidant. A study published in 2012 followed nearly 70,000 nurses over 14 years and found that eating more citrus fruit was associated with fewer strokes.
Yellow: Pineapple, lemons, melons, golden beets, squash, yellow bell peppers, and corn are brightly colored and nourishing. Beta-cryptoxanthin is found in many yellow fruits and veggies and is converted by our bodies into retinol or vitamin A. Adequate vitamin A levels, through the food we eat, are key for good vision, immunity, and healthy bones and skin.
Green: Leafy green vegetables (such as arugula, romaine lettuce, and spinach), green peppers, celery, and avocados are nutritional superstars. They're all high in cholesterol-lowering chlorophyll, and leafy greens are an especially good source of vitamin K, which is crucial for healthy blood clotting and bones.
Purple: The rich, royal purple of grapes, figs, blueberries, purple onions and cabbage, and eggplant provides many vitamins, minerals, and nutrients such as anthocyanins. Higher consumption of strawberries and blueberries, both rich in anthocyanins, has been associated with lower risk of heart disease.
White: White foods get a bad rap, but apples, pears, bananas, cabbage, potatoes, onions, leeks, turnips, cauliflower, and garlic are white foods that offer many benefits. Eating more white-fleshed fruits like apples and pears has recently been linked with lower rates of stroke in a large Dutch study.
By eating the rainbow, we can meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day and enjoy our food along the way! Cook unique Mediterranean dishes at home or pick up a new vegetable at the farmers’ market to try. Oldways, the nonprofit nutrition organization that promotes the Mediterranean Diet, has some great recipes.
Maggie McLain, MPH, is a Portland-based wellness professional with a background in personal training and health coaching.