Why is the Mediterranean Diet So Good For You?
4 min. read
Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute
The evidence continues to grow in support of the Mediterranean diet and its well-known positive effects on cardiovascular health. But have you ever wondered what is behind the benefits?
There’s no magic, says preventive cardiologist Adedapo Iluyomade, M.D., of the cardiometabolic program at Baptist Health Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. It is as much what’s in this approach to eating as what is not.
“There is a real chemical basis for the benefits of the Mediterranean diet,” explains Dr. Iluyomade. “There is also the added benefit that when you eat a diet that puts an emphasis on unprocessed foods, plants and fruits, you’re consuming foods with less saturated fat and less added sugar. All of this comes together to give you a reduction in cardiovascular risk.”
What’s in the Mediterranean Diet?
As the name implies, the Mediterranean diet highlights ingredients traditionally consumed by people who reside along the Mediterranean Sea. More of an eating pattern than a regimented diet plan, it emphasizes foods that make up the long-standing dietary traditions of places such as Greece, southern Italy, parts of Spain and several Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Because foods and recipes vary by country, the Mediterranean diet is less about geography and more about the common components of this approach to eating.
The best way to define the Mediterranean diet is as a primarily plant-based eating plan that includes whole grains, olive oil and healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, nuts, herbs, and spices. Meat and dairy are eaten in smaller quantities, with the preferred animal protein being fish and seafood, followed by poultry. Red meat is eaten infrequently.
Dr. Iluyomade prefers to think of the Mediterranean approach to food as a style of eating rather than what Americans traditionally call a “diet.”
“As cardiologists, we're not fans of telling people to stick to a particular ‘diet’ because it gives off the aura of a fad,” he says. “The goal, really, is to eat a well-balanced diet — one in which you focus on avoiding processed foods and increasing the number of fruits, veggies and whole grains. Whatever style of eating you use to come to that balance will be beneficial.”
How Does the Mediterranean Diet Benefit Health?
The foods typical to the Mediterranean diet are not only delicious; decades of research show they help improve blood vessel function, reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome and benefit the heart, Dr. Iluyomade says.
“The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein in the blood, as well as interleukin-6. These are markers that we use in medicine to determine the level of inflammation in a patient,” he says. “We know that chronic inflammation is really the driver of coronary artery disease and overall cardiovascular disease, so this anti-inflammatory effect appears to be one of the key mechanisms that benefit cardiovascular health.”
Another protective effect is that the diet is rich in antioxidants, Dr. Iluyomade says. “The foods at the center of the Mediterranean diet are very rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, polyphenols. And we know that these compounds reduce oxidative stress,” he explains. This helps protect the blood vessels. “Anything that damages the blood vessels can lead to the development of atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease.”
The Mediterranean diet is also beneficial because it increases the consumption of fiber and healthy fats, Dr. Iluyomade says. “The mono- and polyunsaturated fats have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels and reduce triglyceride levels,” he explains. Also, “With a diet that's high in fish, fruits and nuts, you get natural omega-3 fatty acids. And we know through lots of data that omega-3 fatty acids in the diet have the ability to reduce cardiovascular risk or at least reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.”
Because the Mediterranean diet bypasses processed foods, saturated fat and added sugar, it offers yet another bonus. “For people who adhere to this particular style of eating, there are benefits to the foods they put on their plate,” Dr. Iluyomade says, “but there's also the benefit of the absence of things that contribute to poor health outcomes.”
New Evidence of the Mediterranean Diet’s Benefits
One analysis that drew a lot of buzz recently examined the impact of the Mediterranean diet specifically on women.
Led by researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia, the report reviewed 16 studies that followed more than 700,000 women for an average of 12.5 years. It was published in the medical journal Heart.
The findings: Women who self-reported they followed a Mediterranean diet closely had a 24 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and a 23 percent lower risk of mortality, or early death. Participants who consumed extra virgin olive oil and nuts had a 31 percent lower risk of a cardiovascular event.
“What was interesting about the study was that it focused on women,” Dr. Iluyomade says. “It was encouraging that it showed similar decreases in cardiovascular risks for women as we've seen in prior studies with men — about a 30 percent reduction in cardiovascular events.
“My takeaway from the study was that it further supports that the Mediterranean diet is extremely beneficial for everyone.”
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