Heart Center News

Experts from Massachusetts General Hospital's Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Center and Department of Nutrition and Food Services shed light on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Eat like the Greeks for better health

Mediterranean diet shown to reduce risk of cardiovascular, chronic diseases

27/Apr/2009

The Mediterranean region is renowned for its panoramic vistas and temperate climate. In recent years, the region’s dinner plate has been garnering attention for health benefits that may be the reason for the good health and long lives of the people in the region.

Called the Mediterranean diet, this eating pattern emphasizes fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains while limiting the unhealthy fats found in red meat and dairy. Recently, a meta-analysis of the diets of more than 1 million subjects diets found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with an overall reduction in mortality and incidence of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a paper published by the British Medical Journal in September 2008.

Key components of the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Generous helpings of fruit and vegetables
  • Healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
  • Small portions of nuts
  • More fish and less red meat
  • Limiting high-fat dairy products

"Americans tend to eat a lot more processed food, a lot more white flour and a lot more fatty meat and dairy," says Stacey Nelson, MS, RD, LDN, senior clinical nutritionist for Mass General’s Department of Nutrition and Food Services. "I suggest that my patients look at this pattern and ask themselves what small changes they can make in their lives that will move them toward this pattern."

Adding these elements can be done with some minor changes in behavior, says Nelson. For instance:

  • Eat more fruits and veggies by having them as a snack or adding them to other recipes, like tomato sauce
  • Sauté in olive oil instead of frying in butter
  • Choose whole grains instead of refined breads and pastas
  • Substitute a fish meal for red meat at least twice per week
  • Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk

"I encourage people to make moves toward these goals over time. It’s not realistic to make these changes overnight," says Nelson.

Health Benefits

Those with the fortitude could benefit from some significant improvements in their health and a reduction in their risk factors for a variety if illness, including cardiovascular disease. A data analysis published by Circulation in February 2009 showed that women whose diets most closely resembled a traditional Mediterranean diet reduced their risk of heart attack by 29 percent and stroke by 13 percent.

Deborah Krivitsky, MS, RD, LDN, director of clinical nutrition at the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Center, says these improvements can be attributed to several factors, including the substitution of saturated fats with unsaturated fats that help lower cholesterol levels.

"One of the highlights of the Mediterranean diet is the increased intake of Omega-3 fatty acids," says Krivitsky. "Omega-3s are the nutritional discovery of our time because of their ability to reduce inflammation throughout the body, which plays an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease."

Omega-3 fatty acids are important in the prevention of heart disease and diabetes and ongoing studies are looking at their relationship to depression, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease. The best sources for Omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, trout and sardines. Plant-derived sources include walnuts, almonds and flaxseeds, but Krivitsky says it’s much harder for the body to reap the benefits from these plant sources.

Krivitsky notes that whole grains may also play a role in reducing inflammation throughout the body. A product contains whole grains if the word "whole" is listed first or second in the list of ingredients, she advises.

"Chronic diseases tend to present themselves as a consequence of a life-long habits," says Krivitsky. "While it is important to adopt a health lifestyle as young as possible, it is never too late to benefit from making wise food decisions and engaging in consistent physical exercise."

Research continues to look for benefits to the Mediterranean diet, but Nelson says the current findings provide enough evidence that everybody can benefit by adopting these eating habits.

"Everybody, starting at childhood," she says. "This is not a difficult eating pattern. You don’t need to be a vegetarian or cut out fat completely. The best thing to do is to adopt some of the elements of this diet into your current lifestyle."

Learn more about nutrition services available through the Department of Nutrition and Food Services or call 617-726-2779 to speak with a nutritionist.

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