Ask the Expert
There is mounting evidence that a style of eating enjoyed by people in countries around the Mediterranean Sea (Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Greece and Turkey) has a positive effect on cardiovascular health. It emphasizes modest portions of a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, yogurt, fish, small amounts of red wine and a common mainstay of the cuisine in many of these Mediterranean countries – olive oil.
What makes a Mediterranean diet heart healthy?
There are several contributing factors. We know that omega 3 fatty acids found in fish can reduce inflammation of blood vessels that can cause atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries); resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, can inhibit LDL cholesterol oxidation; and the monounsaturated fats in olive oil can help reduce LDL cholesterol. Although all types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fats, extra virgin olive oil undergoes the least amount of processing and therefore maintains the greatest amount of what are called polyphenol antioxidants. Polyphenols, a natural chemical found in fruits and vegetables, protect cells from damage that leads to heart disease and other health problems.
Recently, researchers from the Cardiovascular Risk and Nutrition Research Group at the Institut Municipal D-Investigacio Medica in Barcelona, Spain, conducted a study involving three groups of healthy individuals. One group consumed a Mediterranean diet that included virgin olive oil with high levels of polyphenols, a second group consumed olive oil with low levels of polyphenols, and a third group consumed their usual diet. After three months, the group that consumed the olive oil with the highest level of polyphenols had significant reductions in the expression of atherosclerosis-related genes. This study strongly shows the heart-healthy benefits of consuming a diet high in polyphenols.
Common Characteristics of a Mediterranean Diet include:
Fresh food, fruits and vegetables
Monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, avocadoes and nuts)
Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and trout
Olive oil used in many foods-pastas, breads, salads and pastries
Small amounts of red wine (optional)
Whole grains and legumes
Fresh fruit for dessert