You’ve probably seen headlines about the heart and brain benefits of the Mediterranean diet — but at this point in your life, you might be thinking, who needs a major overhaul in the way we eat. Diets mean giving up the things that make us happy, right?
Not so much. You may have been eating “Mediterranean” foods for years.
What the Headlines Mean
For some time, there have been reports that the Mediterranean diet — rich in olive oil, fish, fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts, with the occasional glass of wine — cuts the risk of heart disease.
Now the first major clinical trial has produced significant evidence.
Heart health The trial, conducted among people ages 55 to 80 and reported in February, showed that compared to a low-fat diet, the Mediterranean diet reduced by 30 percent the relative risk of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease in high risk people.
The effect of the diet was so powerful, it improved cardiovascular health even though trial participants either were either overweight, smoked, or had risk factors such as type 2 diabetes. And the evidence was so strong that the trial was cut short after less than five years.
Brain health Then in April, a study of mentally healthy men and women age 45 and up that found people who stuck closely to the Mediterranean diet were 19 percent less likely to become cognitively impaired than those who didn’t.
This prospective study, based on food questionnaires and cognitive tests, was the largest of its kind — and the results held up even after taking into account race, vascular problems and environmental risk factors.
The only people who didn’t benefit were those with type 2 diabetes.
8 Foods You Need
Can you make the Mediterranean diet work for you?
The eight foods used in the clinical trial diet are pretty basic and are probably in your pantry or refrigerator right now.
Here’s what you’d need to protect yourself. (Serving amounts below are from the New England Journal of Medicine; portion sizes are from the 2010 USDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”)
- Extra-virgin olive oil Around 4 tablespoons a day. Easy ways to enjoy: drizzle on bread instead of butter; make an easy salad dressing with good balsamic vinegar; saute in olive oil.
- Peanuts and tree nuts Just a handful three times a week (three 30-gram servings; tree nuts include walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc). Great as a snack with a cut-up apple (your fruit serving).
- Beans Three or more servings a week of any type of beans or lentils (aka legumes; a serving is around ½ cup cooked). Sprinkle cooked kidney or garbanzo beans in a salad, have black beans as a side dish or snack on hummus. If you opt for canned beans, rinse them thoroughly to cut down on the sodium.
- Fresh fruits At least three servings a day (a medium size piece of fruit or ½ cup of canned or frozen fruit). Fruit juice — like that 4oz morning glass of OJ — counts if it’s 100% fruit.
- Vegetables Two or more servings a day (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked vegetables). One cup of broccoli is about the size of your fist. Quick veggie servings: saute spinach (frozen or well-rinsed fresh) in olive oil with a little garlic; put diced red peppers and carrots in salad.
- Fish One 3 oz serving of fatty fish like salmon or other seafood at least three times a week. Get your omega-3’s from food, not fish-oil capsules. Canned fish is a less expensive way to enjoy fish; light tuna contains less mercury than albacore. If you’re concerned about mercury, click here to see which fish are safest.
- White meat Choose chicken or lean pork instead of steak. A 3 oz serving of meat is around the size of a deck of cards. Lean pork is wonderful cooked with apples and a dash of cinnamon.
- Wine with meals (for those who chose to partake). Seven or fewer glasses (around 4 oz each) a week.
The Biggest Benefits Were From… Although the combination of all these foods likely produced the health benefits, the biggest benefits apparently came from extra-virgin olive oil and nuts. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in heart-healthy polyphenols, while regular refined olive oil has less. Nuts have cholesterol-lowering mono- and polyunsaturated fats, fiber, and vitamin E.
4 Foods to Limit
Following the Mediterranean diet does mean some small sacrifices:
- Soda Have less than one a day.
- Commercial baked goods Limit yourself to fewer than three servings a week of cakes, cookies, and pastries (or a little more of homemade).
- Spreadable fats Use less than one serving (1 tsp) per day of margarine and other spreadable fats.
- Red and processed meats Cut back to less than one 3 oz serving a day of red meat or cold cuts.
What About the Meds?
Continue to take the medications prescribed to lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, or treat diabetes. That’s not cheating. Most of the people in the Mediterranean diet trial were already taking medications to lower their risk — and the diet still gave them a boost.