American Heart Association – Find Your Way to the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet has been chewed over in public for a generation now. It’s been extensively researched and attempted by millions of people who don’t live anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea.

This eating style, rooted in the cultures of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, emphasizes fresh produce, healthy fats and fish. It’s been credited with lowering risks of cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart attack.

Research indicates the benefits spring, in part, from how the diet relates to cholesterol in the bloodstream, lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol and either not affecting or increasing “good” HDL.

Amanda Gustafson, an in-patient clinical dietitian at Glens Falls Hospital in New York, is a fan because, she says, the Mediterranean diet lends itself to “intuitive eating.” Her patients grasp the concept and can go with it. Most importantly, “it does not require any strict tracking,” which means people are more likely to continue this healthy eating pattern, she said.

In general, the pattern features:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Nuts, beans and whole grains.
  • Olive oil as the principal source of fats, not butter or margarine.
  • Fish and other seafood.
  • Less red meat, sugary sweets and processed foods.

Flexibility is one aspect of the Mediterranean diet that Gustafson appreciates. After all, issues of access — to fresh produce or seafood because of availability or cost — and matters of taste can derail the best intentions.

“I urge people to shop local, shop in season and to shop sales,” she said. “Go to farmers’ markets, look for community gardens or grow your own garden and swap vegetables with your neighbors. Some employers even offer ‘farm shares’ for people who don’t have access to fresh produce.”

Gustafson noted some cost-saving substitutions: natural peanut butter in place of whole nuts, frozen fruits and vegetables instead of fresh when out of season and light tuna in water, not oil, in place of salmon.

Mediterranean-style eating was incorporated into the recent update of an American Heart Association’s tool for evaluating heart health. The tool, My Life Check®, which is based on Life’s Essential 8™, produces a score based on eight easily measured assessments: diet, physical activity, nicotine exposure, sleep health, body weight, blood lipids (cholesterol and other fats), blood glucose and blood pressure.

The experts behind Life’s Essential 8 supported both Mediterranean-style eating and DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which have many similar components. And Gustafson noted another choice, the MIND diet, that’s been getting attention. It takes elements from the Mediterranean diet and DASH to focus on improving brain health.

Gustafson sees value in “making small changes over time as these changes can have a big impact on your health.”