February was proclaimed American Heart Month in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
This year marks the 57th consecutive year that American presidents have honored that tradition.
Today millions of people are living longer and healthier lives. Yet still, heart disease remains the single largest threat to the health of Americans.
Despite many exciting advances in medicine, unhealthy lifestyle choices, along with rising obesity rates in adults and children, have contributed to this ongoing problem.
Heart disease is, in most cases, preventable, by not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a diet low in saturated fats and getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise.
There is more than one way to achieve a heart-healthy diet. But the oft-recommended Mediterranean Diet is among the best.
The Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating that includes an abundance of fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, legumes and grains.
It includes moderate amounts of fish, small portions of sweets, regular consumption of dairy products, and olive oil as the main source of fat.
Red wine is also a hallmark of this traditional way of eating.
The Mediterranean Diet refers to the traditional cuisines of southern Europe, including Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco.
Researchers have noted that people living in these regions have very low rates of heart disease.
Research has shown that this way of eating is not only effective in reducing our risk of heart disease, but also reduces our risk of stroke, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Other benefits include a longer life expectancy and lower body weight.
What makes this diet so healthy? Each component of the diet offers health benefits.
Olive oil can improve blood cholesterol and insulin sensitivity and is rich in antioxidants.
Fish and seafood are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which confer a wide variety of benefits. These include helping to keep cholesterol and triglycerides low, reducing inflammation and blood clotting, lowering blood pressure, and strengthening the immune system.
This plant-based, fiber-rich diet helps keep the digestive tract healthy and reduces blood sugar as well as cholesterol.
Red wine offers cardio-protective effects by raising HDL (the good cholesterol), and it has anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
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Let’s take a look at some of the other traditional hallmarks of the Mediterranean lifestyle.
First of all, food is cherished in these cultures. Fast food is frowned upon, and rarely eaten. Processed and boxed foods are seldom used.
Wine, coffee and water are staples. Coffee, in six to eight-ounce portions, is the typical breakfast beverage of choice and is often used as a mid-afternoon snack to stave off hunger until dinner.
Wine is typically sipped with lunch and dinner, and water is plentiful all day long. Soft drinks are available, but not a staple in the diet.
Lunch is the largest meal of the day and time is taken to savor the meal.
A pastry may be enjoyed with coffee in the afternoon, but in a very small quantity.
After dinner, walking is a pastime that is typically enjoyed, and allows people to get out in their communities to converse with their neighbors.
After dinner, walking also aids in digestion of the last meal of the day. No recliners and remote controls for these folks after dinner!
So how do you put this into practice?
Center your meals around seasonal vegetables and fruits, and whole grains. Let these fill three-quarters of your dinner plate.
Eat fish and seafood at least twice a week and include three to four ounces of poultry a few times each week. Eat red meat in moderation, a few times each month.
Include legumes (lentils, chickpeas, and other dried beans) at least three times per week.
Eat whole grains, including whole grain bread, brown rice, oats, popcorn and whole wheat pasta.
Have a handful of raw nuts as a snack rather than a processed food.
Use olive oil in place of butter and margarine. Choose “extra virgin” which contains more healthful compounds.
Eat low-fat or non-fat dairy. Keep portions of cheese small.
Choose fruit for dessert rather than cakes or pastries.
Replace sugary beverages such as sodas and juices with water.
Enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner if you like it (and are not avoiding alcohol for health or personal reasons). Moderation is the key. No more than two five-ounce glasses per day for men and no more than one glass for women.
Be sure to stay physically active. And take time each day to relax and enjoy the company of others.
The best thing about this is that it doesn’t deprive you of anything. The emphasis is on moderation and enjoyment of food.
You can’t ask for anything better than that, right?
Susie Bond is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist in private practice. Contact her at [email protected]