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Mediterranean diet: Choose this heart-healthy diet option
The focus of the Mediterranean diet isn't on limiting total fat consumption, but rather to make wise choices about the types of fat you eat. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease.
The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil provides monounsaturated fat — a type of fat that can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats. "Extra-virgin" and "virgin" olive oils — the least processed forms — also contain the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, such as canola oil and some nuts, contain the beneficial linolenic acid (a type of omega-3 fatty acid). Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, decrease blood clotting, are associated with decreased sudden heart attack, improve the health of your blood vessels, and help moderate blood pressure. Fatty fish — such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon — are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish is eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean diet.
The health effects of alcohol have been debated for many years, and some doctors are reluctant to encourage alcohol consumption because of the health consequences of excessive drinking. However, alcohol — in moderation — has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some research studies.
The Mediterranean diet typically includes a moderate amount of wine. This means no more than 5 ounces (148 milliliters) of wine daily for women (or men over age 65), and no more than 10 ounces (296 milliliters) of wine daily for men under age 65. More than this may increase the risk of health problems, including increased risk of certain types of cancer.
If you're unable to limit your alcohol intake to the amounts defined above, if you have a personal or family history of alcohol abuse, or if you have heart or liver disease, refrain from drinking wine or any other alcohol. Also keep in mind that red wine may trigger migraines in some people.
Putting it all together
The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat. Many people who switch to this style of eating say they'll never eat any other way. Here are some specific steps to get you started:
- Eat your veggies and fruits — and switch to whole grains. An abundance and variety of plant foods should make up the majority of your meals. They should be minimally processed, and try to purchase them when they're in season. Strive for seven to 10 servings a day of veggies and fruits. Switch to whole-grain bread and cereal, and begin to eat more whole-gain rice and pasta products. Keep baby carrots, apples and bananas on hand for quick, satisfying snacks. Fruit salads are a wonderful way to eat a variety of healthy fruit.
- Go nuts. Keep almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Choose natural peanut butter, rather than the kind with hydrogenated fat added. Try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or spread for bread.
- Pass on the butter. Try olive or canola oil as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. Use it in cooking. After cooking pasta, add a touch of olive oil, some garlic and green onions for flavoring. Dip bread in flavored olive oil or lightly spread it on whole-grain bread for a tasty alternative to butter. Try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or spread for bread too.
- Spice it up. Herbs and spices make food tasty and are also rich in health-promoting substances. Season your meals with herbs and spices rather than salt.
- Go fish. Eat fish once or twice a week. Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Grilled fish tastes good and requires little cleanup. Avoid fried fish, unless it's sauteed in a small amount of canola oil.
- Rein in the red meat. Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. When eaten, make sure it's lean and keep portions small (about the size of a deck of cards). Also avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats.
- Choose low-fat dairy. Limit higher fat dairy products such as whole or 2 percent milk, cheese and ice cream. Switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
- Raise a glass to healthy eating. If it's OK with your doctor, have a glass of wine at dinner. If you don't drink alcohol, you don't need to start. Drinking purple grape juice may be an alternative to wine.
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- Nelson JK (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. May 3, 2010.
- What is the Mediterranean diet pyramid? Oldways Preservation Trust. http://www.oldwayspt.org/mediterranean-diet-pyramid. Accessed May 3, 2010.
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- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.health.gov/DietaryGuidelines/dga2005/document/default.htm. Accessed May 18, 2010.
- 2008 Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. Oldways Preservation Trust. http://www.oldwayspt.org/sites/all/files/Med_Diet_Pyramid_Notes_08.pdf. Accessed May 18, 2010.