In countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, heart disease is less common than in the United States. Researchers believe that foods common to Greece and southern Italy are a major reason for this difference.
The February issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource covers key components of the Mediterranean diet as well as reasons why this approach is beneficial to heart health. Key components include:
Eating generous amounts of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. In most Mediterranean countries, fruits and vegetables are part of every meal. They are naturally low in fat and sodium and have no cholesterol. Many are loaded with antioxidants, which may help prevent cholesterol buildup in the arteries.
Breads, pastas and rice are typically made from whole grains instead of grains that have been refined and lost some nutritional value. Whole grains provide an excellent source of fiber and contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Certain types of dietary fiber also can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and may lower the overall risk of heart disease.
Getting most fats from healthy sources. Olive oil is the primary fat used in Mediterranean cooking. This type of monounsaturated fat can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels when used in place of unhealthy saturated fats or trans fats. Other healthy fats in the Mediterranean diet include polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in vegetable oils, nuts and fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered especially beneficial because they can lower triglycerides, a type of blood fat; improve the health of blood vessels; and protect against death from sudden heart attack.
Consuming very little red meat and eating generous amounts of legumes. Red meat isn't a big part of the Mediterranean diet. Legumes, a class of vegetables that includes beans, peas and lentils -- offer a source of protein that's typically low in fat and contains no cholesterol.
Drink wine, in moderation. Some research has shown that a light intake of alcohol is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. In the Mediterranean, the alcoholic beverage consumed most is wine, which may offer slightly greater heart health benefits than other forms of alcohol. For women (and men over age 65), the recommendation is no more than one glass, or 5 ounces, of wine daily. For men under age 65, it's no more than two glasses, or 10 ounces, daily.
Other aspects of the Mediterranean diet include dining on fish or shellfish as least twice a week; lesser amounts of dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt; incorporating small portions of nuts and seeds daily; eating sweets only on occasion; using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor food; getting plenty of physical activity; and eating meals with family and friends.
The Mediterranean diet may be best known as a heart-healthy eating plan, but some studies suggest that it may also reduce the risk of diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and Alzheimer's disease.