Improve your heart health with a Mediterranean diet
Mediterranean diets lower risk of cardiovascular disease; here's how to incorporate it into your daily nutrition.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. There are several lifestyle factors that can contribute to cardiovascular and coronary artery disease, one of them being your diet.
Maintaining a healthy body weight with appropriate body composition is key. Even a loss of 5 to 10% of your body weight can have a significant and positive impact on your overall heart health. For instance, a 160 lb. female would have to lose only 8 pounds, and a 220 lb. male would have to lose only 11 pounds, to see clinical improvement.
Abdominal obesity is associated with an insulin resistant state that contributes to heart disease and other modern adult disease. Men should aim for a waist circumference below 40 inches, and women’s waists should be less than 35 inches.
Blood sugar, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and waist circumference form the dashboard of health. Keeping these measures in range is the basis of metabolic health.
The dietary pattern that best supports heart health is the Mediterranean diet. According to a landmark study conducted in Spain in 2013, among persons at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts significantly reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events. Importantly, the results were independent of weight loss.
The elements of the Mediterranean diet are plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes, olive oil, nuts, high quality protein and whole grains.
Here are ways to implement the Mediterranean diet:
Try to decrease saturated fats and trans fats in the diet. Choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (from olive and grapeseed oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, flaxseed, and fatty fish). High LDL cholesterol levels can place you at risk for developing cardiovascular disease, and the type of LDL circulating in your blood matters. Oxidized LDL is increasingly recognized as a contributor to heart disease, vascular disease, and stroke. You may be able to prevent oxidized LDL by excluding trans fats from your diet, such as pastries, deep-fried foods, and potato chips.
Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet; produce is rich in antioxidants with natural anti-inflammatory properties that may help to reduce the oxidation of LDL.
Aim for 30 grams of fiber from a variety of foods. A diet rich in fiber has health benefits beyond cholesterol control: it helps control blood sugar, promote regularity, prevents gastrointestinal disease and helps in weight management. There are two types of dietary fiber:
- Soluble fiber: Provides the greatest heart-health benefit because it helps lower total and LDL cholesterol. Good sources of soluble fiber include oats, oat bran, barley, legumes (such as dried beans, lentils and split peas), psyllium, flaxseed, apples, pears and citrus fruits.
- Insoluble fiber: Insoluble fiber promotes regularity, adds bulk and softness to stools, helps with weight regulation and helps prevent many gastrointestinal disorders. Good sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran, whole wheat and other whole grain cereals and breads, nuts and vegetables. Foods contain a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber. To receive the greatest health benefit, eat a wide variety of all high-fiber foods.
Limit refined carbohydrates, sugar and sugar sweetened beverages which can contribute to elevated LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
When incorporating protein, fill your plate with 2/3 plants and 1/3 protein, and try to include fish at least two times per week, such as this salmon dish. You can have pastured poultry two times per week, and if you eat meat, choose grass-fed cuts and aim for once a week.
People often think eggs are off-limits if they have elevated cholesterol, but that is not entirely true. You can still eat eggs, but I do not recommend fried eggs with bacon and cheese on a roll. Instead, choose eggs with sauteed vegetables.
If you tolerate dairy, have yogurt and small portions of cheese (size of two dice). I encourage having a few vegetarian meals each week, such as this sweet potato & black bean chili.
Sodium is necessary for cellular function, though Americans tend to overconsume it. The most common sources of sodium are deli meats, processed meats such as bacon and hot dogs, cheese, canned soups and fast food. If high blood pressure is an issue, I recommend using less salt and more herbs, spices and citrus to flavor your food.
Francine Blinten, CCN, CNS, is a firm believer of listening to your body's needs and creating a comprehensive diet that meets those specific goals. She uses lab results, medical history and the client's background to customize an appropriate eating plan.
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