Doctor’s Orders: Go Ahead and Indulge, Mediterranean Style

Lower heart risks and still eat richly

Want to prevent heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease? Follow the Mediterranean diet.

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We always knew that olive oil, tree nuts and plants were healthy for the heart. But results from a recent study startled even the experts. Up until now, there was no real evidence that the Mediterranean diet could prevent heart risks. The mostly anecdotal studies showed that people from Mediterranean countries seemed to have lower rates of heart disease.

30 percent of heart risks can be prevented by adopting a diet rich in monounsaturated fats.

About the study

Today, there’s proof and numbers supporting a Mediterranean diet for heart health. A recent study shows that about 30 percent of heart risks can be prevented by adopting a diet rich in monounsaturated fats. These findings, published on The New England Journal of Medicine’s website, are based on the first major clinical trial to measure the Mediterranean diet’s effect on heart risks.

This study’s “menu” and measures were rigorous. For example, Mediterranean dieters used at least 4 tablespoons of olive oil per day. And to assess compliance, researchers measured levels of a marker of olive oil in their urine. The same went for eating nuts.

Overall, scientists randomly assigned more than 7,000 people in Spain who were overweight, smoked, were diabetic or had other heart-risk factors to follow the Mediterranean diet or a low-fat diet.

Mediterranean vs. Low-fat diets

Low-fat diets can be difficult to maintain and often leave the stomach growling for more after meals. “Now, along comes this group that does a significant study in Spain that says you can eat a nicely balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and olive oil and lower heart disease by 30 percent,” says Steven Nissen, MD, chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “And you can actually enjoy your life.”

That’s not to say low-fat diets aren’t healthy for the heart. Under the right circumstances, they can be. “A low-fat diet can mean many different things, for example if a diet is low in total fat but contains mostly monounsaturated fat from olive oil and tree nuts, and little saturated fat, then the cardioprotective benefits may still exist,” says Kate Patton, MEd, RD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic.

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“The study confirms that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats (olive oil, tree nuts) and plant-based protein sources (nuts, legumes) can help prevent cardiovascular events,” Ms. Patton says. So snack on nuts, fill your plate with fresh fruit and veggies, order fish off the menu and replace salad dressing with olive oil. Go ahead—drink a glass of wine with dinner, too.

Test drive the Mediterranean diet today

Give your meals a Mediterranean makeover with this menu:

oats and berriesBreakfast: Oats with Berries and Walnuts

Try 1 cup of cooked steel-cut oats with ground flaxseed, walnuts and fresh berries to start your day. The oats and walnuts will help keep you satisfied until lunch. And the berries add a bit of sweetness to your morning.

vegetable soupLunch: Vegetable Soup

Mediterranean vegetable soup makes for a delicious and sensible lunch. Balance the mid-day meal with a fresh fruit cup topped with sliced almonds.

salmon filletDinner Entrée: Orange Baked Salmon

This is a quick and easy twist on salmon that is high on taste and low on guilt. Salmon provides the essential heart-healthy fatty acid omega-3 and it is low in calories and saturated fat.

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salmon filletDinner Side: Great Northern Beans with Tomatoes and Herbs

This is a quick and easy dish that’s perfect as a simple side with a grilled or baked entrée or a vegetarian main course. This recipe is from the Cleveland Clinic Healthy Heart Lifestyle Guide and Cookbook.

red wineFor Dessert: Pick One

Use dark chocolate and red wine in moderation as part of a heart-healthy diet. One 4-ounce glass of red wine or 1-ounce piece of (70 percent cocoa) dark chocolate is the perfect ending to the day.

Red Wine vs. Dark Chocolate: Which is Healthier?

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