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Live Longer with a Mediterranean Diet

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A heart-healthy eating plan to live longer

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating plan based on the foods and recipes of Mediterranean-style cooking. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease because it has been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the "bad" cholesterol that's more likely to build up deposits in your arteries and give heart disease.

What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet incorporates the basics of healthy eating — plus a splash of flavourful olive oil and perhaps a glass of red wine — among other ingredients of traditional cooking in the Mediterranean countries.

Most healthy diets include fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and limit unhealthy fats. While these parts of a healthy diet are tried-and-true, subtle variations or differences in proportions of certain foods may make a difference in your risk of heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat. Many people who switch to this style of eating say they'll never eat any other way. Here are some specific steps to get you started:

  • Eat your veggies and fruits and switch to whole grains: an abundance and variety of plant foods should make up the majority of your meals. Strive for seven to 10 servings a day of veggies and fruits. Switch to whole-grain bread and cereal, and begin to eat more whole-grain rice and pasta.
  • Go nuts:  Keep almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Choose natural or home made peanut butter.Try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or spread for bread.
  • Pass on the butter: Try olive or canola oil as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. Use it in cooking. Dip bread in flavoured olive oil or lightly spread it on whole-grain bread for a tasty alternative to butter. Or try tahini as a dip or spread.
  • Spice it up:  Herbs and spices make food tasty and are also rich in health-promoting substances. Season your meals with herbs and spices rather than salt.
  • Go fish:  Eat fish once or twice a week. Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are healthy choices. Grilled fish tastes good and requires little cleanup. Avoid fried fish.
  • Rein in the red meat:  Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. Make sure it's lean and keep portions small (about the size of a deck of cards). Also avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats.
  • Choose low-fat dairy:  Limit higher fat dairy products such as whole milk, cheese and ice cream. Switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
  • Raise a glass to healthy eating:  If it's OK with your doctor, have a glass of wine at dinner. If you don't drink alcohol, you don't need to start!

Portuguese Sardines

Why a Mediterranean diet?
An analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults showed that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality. The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains
The Mediterranean diet traditionally includes fruits, vegetables, pasta and rice. For example, residents of Greece eat very little red meat and average nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

Grains in the Mediterranean region are typically whole grain and usually contain very few unhealthy trans fats, and bread is an important part of the diet there. However, throughout the Mediterranean region, bread is eaten plain or dipped in olive oil — not eaten with butter or margarines, which contain saturated or trans fats.

Nuts are another part of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Nuts are high in fat (approximately 80 percent of their calories come from fat), but most of the fat is not saturated. Because nuts are high in calories, they should not be eaten in large amounts — generally no more than a handful a day. Avoid candied or honey-roasted and heavily salted nuts.

Olives

Healthy fats

The focus of the Mediterranean diet isn't on limiting total fat consumption, but rather to make wise choices about the types of fat you eat. The Mediterranean diet discourages saturated fats and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), both of which contribute to heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet features olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil provides monounsaturated fat — a type of fat that can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats.

"Extra-virgin" and "virgin" olive oils — the least processed forms — also contain the highest levels of the protective plant compounds that provide antioxidant effects.

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, such as canola oil and some nuts, contain the beneficial linolenic acid (a type of omega-3 fatty acid). Omega-3 fatty acids lower triglycerides, decrease blood clotting, are associated with decreased sudden heart attack, improve the health of your blood vessels, and help moderate blood pressure.

Wine

The health effects of alcohol have been debated for many years, and some doctors are reluctant to encourage alcohol consumption because of the health consequences of excessive drinking.

However, alcohol — in moderation — has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in some research studies.

The Mediterranean diet typically includes a moderate amount of wine. This means no more than 150 ml of wine daily for women or men over age 65, and no more than 300 ml of wine daily for men under age 65.

Adapted from the Mayo Clinic

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