If you’re looking to improve your heart health, then the Mediterranean diet could be of interest to you. This is one of the most well-studied dietary patterns in the world – and the claim that it can help one’s heart health has the backing of rigorous scientific research. For example, it’s now known by the medical community that the Mediterranean diet can lower lipid levels (high lipid levels are linked to greater risk of heart disease) and boost your levels of the “good cholesterol,” HDL.
So read on to learn what, exactly, this dietary pattern is all about – what it consists of and the ways it can enhance your well-being.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet stands in stark contrast to the dietary patterns frequently seen in the United States. You won’t find extensive consumption of refined sugars and red meat in the Mediterranean diet, for instance. Instead, the Mediterranean diet places an emphasis on eating vegetables (and fresh fruit for dessert) – plus whole grain cereals and low-fat dairy products – on a daily basis.
And there’s more to the Mediterranean diet, too. If you’re following a Mediterranean diet, then you’ll eat fish every week – as well as poultry. Red meat, on the other hand, is eaten only about twice a month. The Mediterranean diet also incorporates a lot of tree nuts and legumes – and involves heavy consumption of unsaturated fatty acids (often from olives and olive oil), as opposed to saturated fats.
The Mediterranean diet can be quite a boon for one’s cardiovascular health because it offers a rich source of diverse nutrients – which work together in the body to heighten “good” cholesterol levels (HDL cholesterol), and lower triglyceride levels in the blood.
The Mediterranean Diet: Effects on Cholesterol and Triglyceride Levels
Both cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels are key indicators of heart health (you can monitor these critical markers with EverlyWell’s at-home Heart Health Test), and both are positively impacted by the Mediterranean diet.
Effects on Cholesterol
Cholesterol – a fatty compound found throughout your body – comes in two main forms. First, there’s LDL cholesterol, which is otherwise known by the very appropriate term “bad cholesterol.” High levels of LDL cholesterol can damage one’s cardiovascular health and increase the risk of getting a heart attack (tip: here are 4 evidence-based ways to lower LDL cholesterol levels).
Then there’s HDL cholesterol – or “good cholesterol.” In some ways, HDL cholesterol is the polar opposite of its evil twin LDL cholesterol. For example, HDL cholesterol helps clear out bad cholesterol from your bloodstream. Thus, higher levels of HDL cholesterol are generally better and can help stave off heart disease. And that’s where the Mediterranean diet enters the picture in full force: this dietary pattern can significantly boost your HDL cholesterol levels.
One big reason why this is the case? Well, the Mediterranean diet stresses consumption of unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. And saturated fats – you’ll find them in red meat like beef, for example – are well-known to elevate LDL cholesterol levels. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, tend to have the opposite effect: they lower LDL cholesterol levels – and also bump up “good cholesterol” levels. Take, for example, olive oil: olive oil is filled with unsaturated fatty acids (specifically, monounsaturated fatty acids), and features prominently in the Mediterranean diet.
Further, the Mediterranean diet focuses on consumption of fiber-rich foods, like whole grains, and these foods are a potent way to drop LDL cholesterol levels.
Thus, multiple food categories within the Mediterranean diet can contribute to better, healthier cholesterol levels.
Effects on Triglycerides
Triglyceride is a lipid – or fat – that’s found in the bloodstream. Triglyceride can be very useful to the body because it can be converted into energy. However, too much triglyceride in your blood may be a recipe for cardiovascular disaster: high blood levels of triglyceride significantly elevate the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease. So you generally want to keep your triglyceride levels down, and the Mediterranean diet can do exactly that.
Remember that – in the Mediterranean diet – fresh fruit are often consumed for dessert, instead of desserts that are loaded with high amounts of refined sugar. This is one reason why the Mediterranean diet can have positive effects on triglyceride levels, because high-sugar diets generally increase triglyceride in the blood.
Also, in the Mediterranean diet, oily fish – rich in omega-3 fatty acids – is eaten much more frequently than red meat (fish is eaten on a weekly basis, while red meat is eaten only a couple times a month). And omega-3, in turn, is known to drop trigylceride levels.
Dietary Changes You Can Make for Better Heart Health
There are quite a few ways you can take the medical findings surrounding the Mediterranean diet and apply them to your own eating habits (of course, don’t make any significant dietary changes without first consulting with your healthcare provider!).
For example, make it a point to eat oily fish – like salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, herring, and mackerel – at least once a week, as this will increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake (although it’s a vital nutrient, many people are omega-3 deficient!).
Additionally, try to eat fresh fruits and vegetables every day. One good rule of thumb for this: choose colorful, vibrant foods to have on your plate with every meal (the more colorful, the better!). Fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytochemicals – compounds which can help prevent cardiovascular diseases.
Also, consider adding more whole grains, oats, and barley to your diet. These foods are high in fiber, and fiber is known to lower lipid levels. The American Heart Association recommends that you get your fiber from food sources instead of supplements, and the FDA suggests 25 grams of fiber per day for a 2,000 calorie diet.
The Mediterranean diet has been rigorously studied by researchers across the world. It is a dietary pattern that can protect your heart health by raising “good” cholesterol levels – or HDL cholesterol – and lowering triglyceride levels. It does this by providing the body with a relatively vast number of essential nutrients. By making sure you include more of these nutrients in your diet, you’ll be taking a significant step towards improving your body’s overall well-being.
(To see where your own cholesterol and lipid levels are at, take EverlyWell’s Cholesterol and Lipids Test from the comfort and convenience of home.)