Lifestyle

To prevent heart disease, follow a Mediterranean lifestyle | Gustafson

The Mediterranean diet has long been considered one of the healthiest diets on the planet. - Courtesy photo
The Mediterranean diet has long been considered one of the healthiest diets on the planet.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Southern Europeans are among the healthiest and longest living humans on the planet, according to studies on quality of life and longevity in different parts of the world.

Considering the economic crisis that has taken hold of the region over the past few years, this seems almost a paradox. Experts have long suspected that good eating habits as well as a slower-paced lifestyle are largely responsible for these advantages.

A recently completed study from Spain has now confirmed some of these assumptions. It found that people who followed what is called the "Mediterranean diet" could lower their risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent.

As the name indicates, the Mediterranean diet is based on the culinary cultures of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It consists mainly of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and also wine with most meals.

Even by comparison to Northern Europeans who have a similar or even higher standard of living, Southerners show overall lower rates of heart disease. One of the reasons for this may be that olive oil and nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which are more conducive to maintaining artery health than saturated fats in butter and lard, more commonly used in the north.

For the study, more than 7,400 participants between the ages of 55 and 80 were assigned slightly different diet regimens. All were at an increased risk of developing heart disease at the outset of the study because of other illnesses such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure as well as weight problems, family history and poor lifestyle choices. Surprisingly, those who were given olive oil and a selection of nuts in addition to their regular food intake did best in improving their health condition.

Diet supports mental health

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet seem also applicable to age-related mental health. In a separate study, researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York found that participants who followed the dietary guidelines most strictly could cut their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by up to 40 percent. The reasons are similar to those for heart disease. Experts believe that uninhibited blood flow to the brain, enabled by good heart functions and unobstructed arteries, is crucial for the prevention of mental decline.

Of course, it would be naive to assume that dietary improvements alone would make us altogether healthier and let us live longer. For instance, to prevent heart disease, it is not only important to eat right but also to exercise regularly, manage stress, get enough sleep and also have loving relationships in one's life. We affect our health not only by the way we eat but also how we behave, said Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. It's not just one thing that will make us well but a "spectrum program" of choices, as he calls his comprehensive approach to disease prevention and better health.

One of the most important aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle is having close ties with family and friends. Sharing meals, taking time for conversation, celebrating special occasions surrounded by loved ones – all of that contributes to people's well-being.

"Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed and isolated – and I think that's a real epidemic in our culture – are three times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection and community," he said in an interview. "In part this is because when you are feeling lonely and depressed, you're more likely to smoke, overeat, drink, work too hard, abuse yourself in different ways, as a way of just getting through the day." In the end, he added, what matters most is your overall way of living.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook.

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