Mediterranean diet for a healthy heart! Pros and Cons

Shillpi A Singh weighs the pros and cons of following the Mediterranean diet, which is hailed for its ability to lower rates of heart disease, thanks to a regimen rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil

It is fashionable to follow fads in nutrition, and much like fashion, these too keep changing with time. But over the years, there is one diet that has been widely popular among health conscious junta for its rich benefits for heart. It is the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet that comes loaded with vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts and olive oil. The research proclaiming its long-term goodness has been found to be flawed, even though the finding of the revised study arrives at the same conclusions as the original one, but on a milder and modest note. While the earlier one said had concluded that the diet ‘resulted in a substantial reduction in the risk’ of major heart illness among high-risk people, the new study said ‘those assigned’ to a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk than those not assigned. But the new conclusions are far from changing people’s perception about the benefits that come along by following a Mediterranean diet.

Diet in detail

As the name suggests, the diet is inspired by the eating habits of people living in Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain. Elucidating it further, Rinki Kumari, Chief Dietitian, Fortis Hospitals, Bengaluru, says, “The principal aspects include proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), moderate wine consumption, and low consumption of non-fish meat products. Red wine in moderate amount keeps heart healthy as it has antioxidants like flavonoids, and helps in stabilizing radicals and in prevention of heart diseases by protecting arteries against damage and increasing the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol.”

Mediterranean diet for a healthy heart! Pros and Cons

Healthy option

Giving a rundown of the diet, which routinely ranks at the top of ‘Best Diets’ lists, Sapna Puri, Founder, Calorie Conscious in the Capital, says, “The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy eating plan. It is well known for its cardio protective, metabolic and anti-inflammatory effects. These impressive benefits come from a diet that is extremely rich in polyphenol (a plant-based compound) content. The focus is on consuming a variety of anti-oxidant rich plant based foods (vegetables and fruits) like walnuts, grapes, pomegranates, olives, pecans, sesame seeds, lentils, etc. Fish and whole grains are also a regular part of the eating plan. The primary intent is on consuming whole foods as opposed to foods laden or coated with sugar, sodium, sauces and unhealthy fats.” This diet reduced LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides and reduces risk of heart ailments by nearly 60%. Women benefit with reduced risk of breast cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She adds, “It is an anti-deprivation diet where no food group is off the table. The diet focuses on making wise choices about the fats we eat. As compared to low carb diets where carb consumption is almost negligible, in this diet whole grains like bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa, etc., can be consumed at most meals,” she says.

Dos and don’ts

People who are suffering from heart diseases and diabetes or those who are looking to adopt heart healthy eating habits can give it a shot. “The diet would be feasible for vegetarians as it involves more fruits and vegetables and limits red meat and poultry meat. It is a pattern of eating healthy,” quips Kumari. But following this diet plan in toto doesn’t come easy. Also, this diet doesn’t help someone desiring a quick weight loss.

“Weight loss is slow as the focus is on consuming plant-based proteins and whole grains to keep the blood sugar stable and stomach fuller so that we don’t over eat. One has to avoid all frozen, packaged and processed food. Only heathy snacks are permissible,” says Puri, adding “One has to have a fair idea of cooking skills and time on hand to follow this diet as cooking has to be done from scratch.”

The cost of following this diet can be pretty high. The availability of certain fruits and vegetables in certain seasons can be another limitation. “The Mediterranean diet is not very specific. It doesn’t include exact serving amounts per day, it’s not a calorie-counting diet and even the physical activity parameters are loosely defined. Plus, the recommendation of daily wine may not be advisable for people on certain medications, those with elevated triglycerides or who have pancreatitis,” warns Kumari.

Plan and process

According to the American Heart Association, Mediterranean countries have a lower prevalence of heart disease than the United States. Mediterranean diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory foods and is built upon plant-based foods and healthy fats. It has a favourable effect of a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids and high amounts of fibre, antioxidants and polyphenols found in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and wine. Explaining how the diet works, Kumari says, “The antioxidants elements consumed through the diet promote good heart health. 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.”

Regular physical activity is encouraged to maintain a healthy weight. Puri advises this diet for those who want to reduce their ailments and prolong lifespan, but keeping in mind the difficulties, she offers some hope and break from consumption of Mediterranean foods that is likely to burn a hole in one’s pocket. “Recent research is focusing on supplements containing polyphenols which should give us the benefits of Mediterranean diet. Some important extracts of grapes, olive-oil leaf, pomegranates, walnuts and lentils could also increase the amount of polyphenols in the body, thereby, increasing our longevity and health,” Puri adds.

The bottom line remains: Follow this diet to have a healthy heart. Heart is what matters, after all.

Diet guidelines

Mediterranean diet for a healthy heart! Pros and Cons
  • Eating plant-based foods (fruits and vegetables), whole grains, legumes, pulses and nuts.
  • Using olive oil and canola oil instead of butter.
  • Nuts (rich source of omega 3) and nut butters could be consumed daily (in moderation).
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavour food.
  • Limiting red meat to two to three times a month.
  • Eating fish and poultry to twice a week. Fish (specially fatty fish like tuna, salmon, herring and trout) could be consumed regularly.
  • Drinking wine (specially red, no binge drinking) in limited quantities for men and women.
  • Adding virgin or extra-virgin olive oil to most meals (virgin olive oil block carcinogenic actions and combat oxidative stress in body).
  • Average nine servings a day of antioxidant rich fruits and veggies.
  • Only low fat dairy like skimmed milk or yogurt and low fat cheese can be consumed.

Give these healthy snacks a try

Mediterranean diet for a healthy heart! Pros and Cons
  • read dipped in olive oil.
  • Shelled pistachios.
  • Hard boiled egg.
  • Sliced tomato with parmesan cheese.
  • Apple with almond butter.
  • Hummus with carrot sticks.
  • Tahini (sesame seed butter).
  • Quinoa.
  • Olives.

— Sapna Puri, Calorie Conscious

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