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Mediterranean-style diet helps if you already have heart disease.

The popular eating plan has been touted for helping to prevent heart disease. New research suggests it also has benefits if you are a heart patient.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, and unrefined foods--along with a little olive oil--may help heart patients lower their risk of heart attack and stroke. A recent study found that following a Mediterranean-style diet offers protective benefits for individuals even after they have been diagnosed with heart disease.


The study, published in the European Heart Journal, found that for every 100 heart patients eating the highest proportion of health Mediterranean food there were three fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths, compared to 100 heart patients who ate the least-healthy foods.

"When it comes to people with existing cardiovascular disease, we focus on eliminating foods that could lead to worsening cardiovascular or cardiac disease," says dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, a nutrition counselor with Preventive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic.

Mediterranean marvels

Zumpano explains that a Mediterranean-style diet is so beneficial because it contains components that are proven to help lower heart risks. Research shows, for example, that antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a healthier cardiovascular system.

Antioxidants, which fight free radical molecules in the body responsible for damaging healthy cells, are found in abundance in many fruits and vegetables. Think broccoli, berries and artichokes.

Omega-3s, found in olive oil, salmon, walnuts and flaxseed, are associated with a host of health benefits, including lower triglyceride levels, lower blood pressure, and even improved brain health.

"The Mediterranean diet also includes a large variety of nutrients and minerals that are essential for cardiovascular health," Zumpano says.

Western diet woes

The benefits that come from eating a Mediterranean-style diet do not exist with a traditional Western diet, which tends to include more red meat, processed foods, sodium, refined grains, unhealthy fats (saturated and trans) and added sugars.

Interestingly, in the study, participants who followed a Western diet didn't necessarily see an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Of course, they didn't see a reduction in risk, either.

One takeaway from those results could be that you derive more benefit from actually eating foods in a Mediterranean diet, rather than avoiding the unhealthy foods in the Western diet.

Zumpano recommends heart patients start to shift away from a Western diet to a Mediterranean-style diet.

"It could be a shift of 100 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent and 25 percent," Zumpano says. "Any shift can lower your risk compared with a total Western diet."

Healthier replacements

Zumpano says that the main shift she would advise heart patients make is to replace processed foods with whole foods.

"Instead of eating a fruit snack, eat a whole fruit," Zumpano suggests. "Instead of snacking on veggie chips, snack on fresh carrots or celery. Fish is highly encouraged on the Mediterranean diet. Flax seeds are also great. You can have them on a salad or in yogurt, lots of different ways."

Value of simplicity

One of the advantages of the Mediterranean-style diet is its simplicity. Zumpano says that while a Western diet has a lot of variety, having too many choices can be confusing to many people trying to make healthy choices.

"Look at how many varieties of oatmeal there are," she says. "How is a person supposed to decide? Get just plain oats. That way you can add fruit or whatever you want."

She adds that if cooking is a problem, you can eat simple meals. Working with a dietitian can be a big help in modifying your diet.

"There are healthier forms of convenience foods," Zumpano says. "It's often a matter of education. Any time you're able to change a Western food to a Mediterranean food, you're going to gain some benefit."


* Avoid solid fats, such as butter and margarine. Instead, get your fats from healthy unsaturated fat sources, such as olive and vegetable oils.

* Choose low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese and other dairy products over whole-milk products.

* Get your protein from lean sources, including fish, poultry and plant foods.
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Title Annotation:NUTRITION
Publication:Heart Advisor
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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