Women's Heart Advisor January 2019 Issue

There's More Good News About the Mediterranean Diet

Protecting against stroke is another reason to adopt this healthy eating style.

1 FishDinner

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There’s proof the Mediterranean diet may be as effective as medications in preventing heart attack and, now, stroke.

Evidence continues to grow that the average diet eaten in Mediterranean countries is far better for our health than the average American diet. Multiple studies have shown that a Mediterranean-style diet lowers the risk of heart disease, helps preserve brain health and allows us to manage our weight.

Now, stroke prevention can be added to the list. In September 2018, a long-term study of nearly 23,250 adults found that a Mediterranean-style diet was associated with a 22 percent lower risk of stroke in women over age 40.

"Original research that brought the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet to light found that middle-aged women who followed this diet for 15 years were about 40 percent more likely to live past age 70 without developing a chronic illness or other physical or mental problem than those who ate less healthy diets. Add stroke benefit, and you have a natural way of preventing cardiovascular disease that may equal or exceed any medication available today," says Cleveland Clinic dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD.

Foods Included and Excluded

The Mediterranean diet does not require you to buy special products or supplements. It isn't boring, and it doesn't promote a limited choice of foods. It's a diet you will find easy to adopt and enjoy for life.

As its name implies, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes foods eaten as part of a regular diet in Spain, the south of France, Italy, Greece, Syria, Jordan and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. While there are differences in the way traditional dishes of these countries are prepared, their overall diet includes large quantities of vegetables, fruits, legumes, potatoes, nuts, whole grains and olive oil, moderate amounts of fish and poultry and little red meat or dairy.

In contrast, the typical American diet is high in red meat, sugar, refined grains, processed foods and fast food and low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

There are other differences, as well. "The Mediterranean diet incorporates a more active lifestyle and portion control," says Kirkpatrick.

Can You Eat This Way Sometimes?

So this begs the question, will you benefit from the Mediterranean diet if you stick to it only some of the time?

The answer is a qualified yes. In the stroke study, the risk of stroke in women dropped as their adherence to the Mediterranean diet rose. Women who failed to adhere to the diet consistently still had a lower risk of stroke than those who didn't follow the diet, but not as low a risk as those who followed it to the letter. However, the authors found that the overall diet offered more stroke-protection benefits than the individual foods themselves. This could explain why those who embraced the diet fared better than those who picked and chose their foods.

"This finding suggests there may be a synergistic reaction between all the nutrients that is more powerful than the individual foods themselves," says Kirkpatrick.

Is This the Last Word?

There is no question that the Mediterranean diet can help prevent heart attack and stroke. However, other diets have shown cardiovascular benefits, as well.

"Studies would lead us to believe that giving up poultry and fish and eating a plant-based diet is beneficial to the heart. So is eliminating red meat and sugar," says Kirkpatrick.

Proceed with Enthusiasm!

It doesn't take a lot of effort to eat a Mediterranean diet. Chances are good you have eaten in Italian, Greek or Spanish restaurants.

Get on the Internet and look up recipes for the dishes you like the most.

Take stock of your favorite recipes and put aside those that rely on red meat.

Take a second look at recipes that use ground meat or small amounts of red meat and consider substituting poultry, fish or vegetables. For example, use ground chicken or turkey in lasagna and tacos. Try salmon burgers instead of hamburgers. In sandwiches, use tuna fish or chicken salad in place of lunchmeats.

Choose whole-grain pastas, breads and cereals.

Add a salad, vegetable or both to your lunch and dinner. It doesn't have to be complicated: Sliced tomatoes count!

Finally, a large Spanish study found that the Mediterranean diet can protect against depression.

"A diet that improves your overall mood, as well as your physical well-being, sounds like a diet that would benefit all of us," says Kirkpatrick.

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