Why The Mediterranean Diet Wins, and Three Real- Life Recipes

US News and World Reports just announced that the Mediterranean diet is the best, in multiple categories, most notably “healthiest”. For anyone who says “show me the data”, well, there’s a ton:

This study of over 70,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study found the Mediterranean diet was associated with an over 30% lower risk of cardiovascular events. This Spanish study (PREDIMED) of over 7000 participants compared the Mediterranean diet against a regular lowfat diet and found a 30% lower risk of cardiovascular events. The Lyon Diet Heart Trial looked at 605 men who had already had a heart attack and compared a Mediterranean diet against a control lowfat diet and found a 50-70% lower risk of having a second heart attack.

But how does this way of eating produce such impressive health benefits? In one recent study, researchers looked at data including dietary questionnaires, blood samples, and vitals signs from over 25,000 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Study. Participants were all over age 45 (with an average age of 55) and with no history of heart disease at the beginning of the study, and were followed for up to 12 years. Women were placed in a low, medium, or high Mediterranean diet group based on these criteria: Higher than average intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and healthy fats; healthy level of alcohol intake (one drink or less per day); and a lower than average intake of red and processed meats.

The results were impressive: Women in the higher Mediterranean diet groups had a lower body mass index and blood pressure, as well as healthier lab data like lower inflammatory markers (high-sensitivity CRP), lower diabetes risk (insulin resistance), and a better lipid profile (higher HDL). So, it followed that these higher Mediterranean diet groups had significantly lower risk of having a heart attack, stroke, or any arterial disease requiring a stent (23% and 28%, respectively). These findings jive with prior research showing that diets higher in plant foods and lower in red and processed meats are associated with a lower body mass index, diabetes risk, blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation.

Okay! Okay! We get it, the Mediterranean diet wins. But what does this diet actually look like? And do we really eat this way?

This is doable, and yes, we do! The diet is basically a plant-based diet, emphasizing colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, olive oil, some seafood, poultry, and dairy, and maybe wine. Here’s a few photos and recipes for real meals in our house: a weeknight dinner, a winter salad, and a quick lunch.

Broiled fish, garlic sauteed kale, and mashed sweet potatoes in under 30 minutes: I swung by our local market one afternoon and picked up a bag of shredded kale, a couple of sweet potatoes, and swordfish on special. Got home and filled a pot with water, set to boil, and turned the oven on broil. Then I peeled and chopped the potatoes, and threw them into the pot of boiling water. I drizzled olive oil on the fish, sprinkled pepper, and stuck that in the oven. I pulled out a saute pan and heated up some olive oil and threw in the kale, with a clove of pressed garlic. Stirred that. When the kale was soft, I turned off the heat and left it covered. Then I drained the potatoes and mashed them right in the pot, with a sprinkle of cinnamon. The fish was nicely browned, so pulled that out. Hubby opened the wine, and there we were, fancy dinner that would have cost $$$ at a restaurant, prepped and cooked in under 30 minutes.
I had to bring a salad to a family dinner in December, and this was a hit: Roasted beets, goat cheese, pistachios, and pomegranate seeds with a simple vinaigrette (a salad very open to substitutions): Wrap four or five colorful beets in foil and roast at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes, give or take. Let cool, then unwrap, slice, and arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with crumbled goat cheese, pistachios (I used unsalted), and pomegranate seeds. In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle over salad, along with chopped chives if you have them.
Spicy, melty, and healthy lunch in under 5 minutes: I was working at home and hankering a healthy hot lunch. We had a big bag of mixed power greens, shredded white cheddar, jarred salsa, corn tortillas, and pepitas. I simply microwaved the greens and cheese, spooned that goodness into a warm tortilla, and added salsa and pepitas. I’ve been craving this ever since.

Not sure how to make this diet work for you? My book, Healthy Habits for Your Heart, teaches you the basics of behavior change as well as small, step-by-step methods to make these changes work in your real life. Chapter 5 Eat For Your Life: Nutrition Habits takes you through the science-backed recommendations for adopting a heart-healthy, plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet, with simple recipes included.

*I also recently blogged about the Mediterranean diet for heart health on Harvard Health Blog , check it out!



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