How best to improve cardiovascular health through diet has led to competing plans, including the Mediterranean and low-fat diets. In general, a low-fat diet is the most commonly prescribed to anyone looking to improve their cardiovascular health. Recent studies, however, have begun to show that, while a low-fat diet is fine for your heart health, the Mediterranean diet is even better.
Low-Fat vs. Mediterranean
To understand why these diets improve heart health, it’s important to understand how each diet works. The low-fat diet, as its name suggests, cuts down on fat consumption in your diet. Fat contains more calories per gram than proteins or carbohydrates, so it seems logical that less fat would lead to numerous benefits, like weight loss.
The reason why low-fat diets are associated with cardiovascular health is perhaps not because they lower the intake of fat, more specifically, saturated fat. Unfortunately, it’s either an exaggeration or an outright mistake to assume saturated fat is that bad for you. Saturated fat, as numerous recent studies have shown, does not do nearly the damage to you that eating too much sugar does. The low-fat diet as frequently studied is also much lower in sugar, perhaps leading to its benefits.
A Mediterranean diet follows a more-or-less similar diet to people living in that area of the world. It involves eating primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts (which are fairly high in fat), whole grains, chicken, fish and, rarely, red meat. Eggs, cheese, and yogurt are included. Olive oil is substituted for other fat sources, like butter, and dishes are seasoned with herbs and spices rather than salt.
Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the study selected a group of 7,447 people, about 50/50 men and women, which ranged from age 55 to 80 at were at high risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers separated the subjects into 3 different groups and prescribed either a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts, or a low-fat diet.
After about 5 years, the researchers looked at the rate of major cardiovascular events, like heart attacks and strokes. They found that the Mediterranean diets (either supplemented with nuts or extra-virgin olive oil), not the low-fat diet, resulted in the lowest rate of cardiovascular issues.
Why is the Mediterranean diet so heart healthy?
The traditional Mediterranean diet relies more on foods with little processing, which is why the more virgin, i.e., less processed, the olive oil, the better. Also, the higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids found in the fish, whole grains and other foods common in the Mediterranean diet have been directly linked to lower rates of cardiovascular problems. In fact, red wine, an optional part of the Mediterranean diet, has also been shown to help improve cardiovascular health.
If you’re interested in starting a Mediterranean diet, here’s a few tips to remember:
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