The Mediterranean diet is a culinary delight. It is also a heart’s delight. As poetic as that sounds, it is grounded in history, research and chemistry. Let’s take look at each and you’ll see why.
First, the history. The modern day Mediterranean diet has a history that dates back to the years between 1958 and 1970. During that time, Ancel Keys, a pioneer in the field of nutritional research, was involved in a study called the Seven Countries Study. Keys was particularly interested in the traditional diet of people living on the small Greek island of Crete. They were found to have the lowest level of heart disease in the world. Their diet consisted of olive oil, fruits, whole grains, fish, very little meat, and red wine with meals, a combination of low saturated fat, high monounsaturated fat, omega-3 fish oil and fiber. “. . . Key’s novel findings revealed to the world for the first time that risk of cardiovascular disease is strongly related to both the level of saturated fat in the diet and the amount of blood cholesterol. The concept of the Mediterranean diet was born.” (1)
Second, the research. According to current American Heart Association statistics, coronary artery disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women, and is linked to elevated cholesterol levels, in particular, the LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein), or bad cholesterol. There are three culprits in the modern American diet that increase LDL in the blood–saturated fats, cholesterol and trans-fats. This is where the chemistry comes in. By decreasing these three fats in our diet, we can help to reduce the dangerous levels of LDL in the blood and to promote cardiovascular health. (2)
Not all fats are the same. There are good fats and bad fats. Good fats are primarily the unsaturated fats and are considered heart healthy. These are the monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil and avocados, the polyunsaturated corn and safflower oils, and the omega-3 rich fish oils found in salmon, mackerel and sardines. These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. These are the bad fats and include butter and bacon fats. Saturated fats are found primarily in animals but also in some plant sources such as coconut oil and palm oil. The second of the “bad” fats is cholesterol, the source of which is solely from animals. Think of it this way: If it had a face or had a mother, it has cholesterol! The final bad guy is trans-fat. Trans-fats are altered vegetable oils which are liquid in their natural state but are changed by a process called “hydrogenation.” It makes margarine and peanut butter easier to spread and helps crackers and cookies last longer in your pantry. There is NO daily requirement for trans-fats! Look to your labels and avoid them as much as possible.
So what’s so bad about these “Low Down Louts” of the fat world? It’s because saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and trans-fat all raise the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood and can contribute to the accumulation of plaque in the artery walls which leads to atherosclerosis, a narrowing and hardening of the arteries. Let me say one thing here in defense of both saturated fat and cholesterol . . . some of each is required by the cells of your body. The maximum daily intake of saturated fat should be less that 7% of your total calories (15g of saturated fat per 2,000 calories) and for cholesterol less than 300mg per day. The problem is that the typical American diet has a much higher saturated fat and cholesterol content. “You should know, however, that if you compare eating cholesterol to eating saturated fat, it is saturated fat that is more potent in terms of its cholesterol-raising effect.”(3)
What is the most important message that you can take from this information? First, know your cholesterol levels, the total, the HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) (good) and the LDL (bad). Take care of yourself by being physically active and engaging in a regular exercise program three to five days a week. That will help to raise the level of your good cholesterol. Cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol and try to eliminate trans-fats. Trans-fats not only raise LDL cholesterol they also lower HDL, the good stuff! Become a nutrition detective by reading labels and, finally, look to the Mediterranean diet for good food ideas.
The Mediterranean diet itself is centuries old but when you get right down to it, it’s just a good way to eat. It’s kind of old-fashioned, sensible eating. One of the main ingredients of the Mediterranean way of eating is olive oil instead of butter. In contrast to the high amount of animal fat in the American diet, olive oil lowers LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Other foods included in the Mediterranean way of eating are fish, fresh fruit, dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, red wine and lotsa garlic! What a way to lower your cholesterol! Moderation in wine and portion sizes is recommended but, as far as the ingredients, eat to your heart’s content!
If you are interested in more information on this subject and nutrition in general here are three websites:
(1, 2, 3. . .Janet Bond Brill, PhD., R.D. ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal, Sept/Oct. 2007)
Yours in fitness,
Olivia Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM