When it comes to heart health and a long happy life, nutrition is only one component of many – but it’s an important one. The Mediterranean diet has long been held in the highest esteem as a pinnacle of healthy eating habits. And for once, there is a large amount of scientific data to back this up! Read on to discover how the Mediterranean diet has earned its title.
Dietary Risks for Heart Disease
High cholesterol is one of the main risk factors for heart disease later in life. There are some foods in particular that, when eaten in excess amounts over several years, can correlate with high cholesterol: trans fats (“partially hydrogenated” oils on an ingredient label), baked or fried foods, processed snacks, soda, candy, and pastry to name a few.
Excess cholesterol can gather on the sides of blood vessels and form plaques that harden and make vessels less flexible as blood flows. This condition is called arteriosclerosis. Hardened, inflexible blood vessels are more susceptible to rupture when blood pressure rises. Another risk is pieces of plaque breaking off into the bloodstream and causing clots, which can lead to heart attack (lodging in the heart vessels) or stroke (lodging in the brain vessels).
Reducing overall cholesterol is one of the best ways we know of how to reduce these risks of heart disease later in life.
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4 Ways the Mediterranean Diet Helps Maintain Healthy Cholesterol Levels
1) Fiber, fiber, fiber.
The culinary tradition of the Mediterranean diet is to devote half your plate to fruits and vegetables, dine on fruits for dessert, and choose whole grains like barley, bulgur, and farro. These foods are rich in fiber. Fiber helps to bind excess cholesterol in the body, and eliminate it through our digestive system.
Aim for at least 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables a day to maximize cholesterol elimination and avoid the risk of heart conditions later in life.
2) Unsaturated fats.
Another unique facet of the Mediterranean diet is a high intake of unsaturated fats, which are our plant-based fat sources. These include oils, nuts, seeds, and avocado. All foods that contain fat have a mix of different types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These plant-based options are typically higher in monounsaturated fats, which have been associated with lower total cholesterol.
Aim for 1-2 servings of plant-based fats a day, and choose nuts and seeds as a main protein source at least 5 times per week to optimize your unsaturated fat intake.
3) Lean protein.
The third way the Mediterranean diet helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels is its focus on lean and plant-based proteins like fish, nuts, and beans. More lean choices will naturally decrease the amount of saturated fat in the diet, which has been associated with higher cholesterol. Choices high in saturated fat include fatty beef, lamb, cured meats, bacon, untrimmed pork, poultry with skin, lard, cream, cheddar cheese, and full-fat dairy.
Aim for 2 servings per week of fish and make at least half your protein choices plant-based to keep your saturated fat intake low. Keep food choices high in saturated fat to one or two per day.
The base of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid consists of staying active and social with others. Physical activity is a key component to maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. Exercise has been shown to increase levels of HDL or “good cholesterol.” We think of it as “good” because HDL is a transport protein that will circulate through the body, pick up extra cholesterol from the body and bring it back to the liver to be used in digestive processes. By collecting the excess cholesterol, HDL minimizes the amounts of plaque that develops in blood vessels.
To increase HDL levels, follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations of 150 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes of vigorous) physical activity per week.
Aim for a mix of cardio conditioning, full-body strength training, and flexibility. Continue to explore new physical activities or fitness programs that keep you appropriately challenged and having fun!