A heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be tasteless. Although some “experts” insist that people at high risk for heart attack all but eliminate fat from their diets, evidence suggests that all fat is not evil.
A generation ago, researchers at the University of Minnesota examined the relationship between diet and heart disease rates in seven countries. They found that people living in countries around the Mediterranean Sea suffered only a fraction of the heart attacks and coronary deaths experienced by people in Western industrialized countries, including the United States.
Most recently, researchers in the Netherlands followed a group of 12,031 men for 25 years. The men were between the ages of 40 and 59 and free of coronary heart disease (CHD) when the study began. Results of the study showed that men in the United States and northern Europe (represented by Finland and the Netherlands in the study) die from CHD at more than three times the rate of men in southern Europe (represented by Italy, Greece and the former Yugoslavia).
The study’s authors conclude that, although genetic differences may partially explain the variations in CHD-related deaths, other factors also should be considered. They suggest that nutritional differences may play an important part because dietary patterns in northern Europe and the United States vary greatly from those in countries near the Mediterranean.
What is it about people’s diets in that part of the world that protects residents from CHD? Let’s compare the two dietary styles. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, fish and beans. In nutritional terms, that translates to a diet high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals the body needs to stay healthy. People living near the Mediterranean tend to eat little meat and little butter, which means they avoid two major sources of saturated fat.
Most Americans, on the other hand, consume a lot of meat and other animal products high in saturated fat. In addition, the average American barely manages to eat the minimum one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half cups of fruits and two to four cups of vegetables a day. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid recommend five to 10 ounces of grain products, at least half of them whole grain, most Americans’ diets fall short. That means most Americans don’t get enough of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals their bodies need to stay healthy.
It’s important to note that the Mediterranean diet is not fat free. Typically, it derives 30 percent of calories from fat. However, of calories consumed, only 8 percent are from saturated fat. Instead of relying heavily on fat from animal sources such as butter, southern Europeans use olive oil and other fats from vegetable sources, which contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Researchers have found that those two types of fat actually are good for the heart! Of the two, monounsaturated fat—the fat in olive oil—is the best for heart health. While polyunsaturated fats reduce LDL cholesterol (the artery clogger), monounsaturated fats do that as well as increase your body’s supply of HDL cholesterol (the artery cleaner). In addition, some studies have found that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats make platelets—one of the components of blood that contributes to clotting—less sticky. That, in turn, makes the platelets less likely to form clots, which can trigger a heart attack or a stroke.
The idea that some fats are better for you is being accepted in the United States. The American Heart Association recommends that people replace saturated fat in their diets with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat.
Another difference between dining American style versus Mediterranean style is the way meals are enjoyed. The Mediterranean approach involves a variety of foods served in several small courses. In addition to the health benefits from eating a wider variety of foods, the meal is slowed down, which tends to prevent overeating.
How can you reap the rewards of a Mediterranean diet? The directions are simple: Build your meals around fish, grains, vegetables and fruits. Eat lean meat no more than twice a week and make sure the serving is about 3 ounces. Use olive or canola oils when cooking. (You can substitute vegetable oil directly for butter or margarine when baking.)
One caveat: Eating Mediterranean style does not entitle one to overindulge. Just because your muffins are made with canola oil doesn’t mean you can eat five and expect to help your heart. Moderation is one of the keys to this eating style’s ability to reduce your risk of CHD.