Mediterranean Diet and 5 More Ways to Protect Your Heart

Feb 28, 2013 7:00am
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Eating a Mediterranean diet can protect your heart. (Image credit: Corbis)

As American Heart Health Month comes to a close, I wanted to take some time to talk about prevention.

We actually know a lot about preventing heart disease, and there are easy things you can do right now to lower your risk.

First, know your family history.  Did your father or brother have a heart attack before they were 55? Did your mother or sister have one before they were 65?  If so, you already have a higher risk of developing heart disease, and need to pay particular attention to your other risk factors.

And even without a family history of heart disease, you aren’t off the hook.  Here are some things you can and should do right now to protect your heart:

  • If you’re a smoker, stop. It’s hard to do on your own, so get some help by calling the quit line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW.  They can help you get nicotine replacement therapy.
  • If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol, take steps to control them.
  • If you aren’t getting any exercise, look at ways to move.  Even 15 minutes a day can make a difference.  Start with something easy, something you enjoy and build from there.
  • And if you’re overweight or obese, try to lose weight. Again, start with small changes that you can live with, so you’ll experience success. Slow and steady is the way to go. I like to recommend ditching sodas and other sweetened drinks as a great first step.

I used to stop there with my recommendations.  But this week, a new study really caught my eye, and I think I’ll add one more tip to the list.

It was a Spanish study, designed to test whether the Mediterranean diet could prevent heart attacks, strokes or deaths from cardiovascular disease in people at high risk. And what the researchers found was exciting.

Compared to men and women following a low fat diet, those following the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or nuts had a 30 percent reduction in heart disease risk.  That’s pretty incredible. Statins, which many view as blockbuster anti-cholesterol drugs, only reduce risk by 25 percent.

The Mediterranean diet stresses eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables,  legumes like chickpeas, beans and lentils, whole grains, and lean protein sources like fish and chicken. In this particular study, there was a big focus on consuming olive oil and nuts. And when I say consuming, I mean really eating a lot!

Click here for Mediterranean diet recipes.

For olive oil, the study suggests eating 4 tablespoons per day. For nuts, it said to eat as many walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts as you want — at least three handfuls per week. For those who drink alcohol, you can have a glass of wine with dinner. But ditch the sodas, baked goods, spreadable fats like butter and margarine, and red and processed meats.

As with any study, it would be great to see it repeated elsewhere to make sure the findings hold up. It was conducted in Spain, where the average diet is very different from that of a typical American. The participants were also given free olive oil or nuts, and received nutritional counseling every three months — an impossible feat in the greater population.  I’d also like to see the study done in people at lower risk of heart disease.

But what I love about this study is that recommends something that’s quite easy to live with. The dietary changes in this study had nothing to do with trying to lose weight; they simply aimed to boost health by changing the foods that you eat. Nothing was forbidden — foods were either encouraged or discouraged — and you don’t need a scale and a degree in food science to give it a try.

So in honor of American Heart Health month, go for a brisk walk and think about a couple things you can do to help keep your heart healthy.  It’s easy!

“Tell Me the Truth, Doctor” is a weekly column written by ABC News’ chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. Look for Dr. Besser’s book April 23.

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