We can’t control our age or genetics, but women can do plenty to control their risk of cardiovascular disease, and that’s important considering that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women alike. A heart-healthy diet is among the most influential factors in reducing risk.
Much has been made of the merits of the Mediterranean diet, but some confusion remains about exactly how to ‘Mediterranean-ize’ a typical American diet. The basic components include fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains, fish and poultry, olive oil as the principle source of fat, cheese and yogurt, red meat only rarely, and very limited consumption of refined and processed foods, says Dr. Stephanie White, a cardiologist with the SSM Heart Institute at St. Mary's Health Center.
“While the diet does offer some benefit to weight loss, the major benefit is its reduction in cardiovascular events. It’s not clear what aspect of the diet leads to these benefits, but it’s thought that it could be the high concentration omega-3 fatty acids,” White says.
The produce-heavy diet also provides vitamins and minerals essential for good heart function, plant chemicals that convey disease-fighting ability (phytochemicals) and antioxidants that reduce cell damage, notes registered dietitian Lori Jones of the American Heart Association, who volunteers for the Midwest affiliate. “The diet also reduces the amount of animal fat and cholesterol taken in through red meat and dairy sources by relying on more poultry and fish consumption, as well as non-animal protein sources. Excessive saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet could promote clogging of the arteries and make the heart have to work much harder to pump blood,” she adds.
Despite the popularity of the Mediterranean diet, research has yet to prove just how much of a role it plays in heart health. “Before advising people to follow a Mediterranean diet, we need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for lower deaths from heart disease,” says Kodi Gildehaus, a clinical inpatient dietitian working primarily with cardiac patients at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.
However, Gildehaus and other dietitians recommend the general structure of the Mediterranean diet based on previous studies that verify the benefits of a diet low in saturated fat that focuses on fresh, whole foods.
Limiting salt consumption also supports a heart-healthy diet. “Aim for not adding any salt to your meals, and prepare more meals from scratch instead of choosing prepackaged meals,” Gildehaus says. Other rules of thumb: “Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks or sweets. Instead, choose water and skim or 1-percent milk more often. Be mindful of your portion sizes, and include moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.” These strategies will help manage blood pressure and blood sugar, further decreasing cardiovascular disease risk.
And while a Mediterranean-inspired diet may not lead to a fast, dramatic weight loss, the real goal is a long and healthy life. “Most of the benefits of this diet are not visible,” White says. “When compared with other diets, weight loss may not be as dramatic. But the cardiovascular benefits are significant.” And sometimes what you can’t see is the most important thing.
Explore the Delicious Possibilities
Honey Soy Salmon
A sweet, tangy and salty mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar and honey does double-duty as marinade and sauce. Make it a meal: Serve with brown rice and sautéed red peppers and zucchini slices.
- Serves: 4
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cooking Time: 20 minutes
1 scallion, minced
2 T reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 T rice vinegar
1 T honey
1 t minced fresh ginger
1 lb. center-cut salmon fillet, skinned (see Tips below) and cut into 4 portions
1 t toasted sesame seeds (see below)
Whisk scallion, soy sauce, vinegar, honey and ginger in a medium bowl until the honey is dissolved. Place salmon in a sealable plastic bag, add 3 tablespoons of the sauce and refrigerate; let marinate for 15 minutes. Reserve the remaining sauce.
Preheat broiler. Line a small baking pan with foil and coat with cooking spray.
Transfer the salmon to the pan, skinned-side down. (Discard the marinade.) Broil the salmon 4 to 6 inches from the heat source until cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes. Drizzle with the reserved sauce and garnish with sesame seeds.
How to skin a salmon fillet: Place skin-side down. Starting at the tail end, slip a long knife between the fish flesh and the skin, holding down firmly with your other hand. Gently push the blade along at a 30-degree angle, separating the fillet from the skin without cutting through either.
To toast sesame seeds, heat a small dry skillet over low heat. Add seeds and stir constantly, until golden and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.
Spicy Vegetable Soup
Fresh basil adds a bright spark to this vinegary, vegetable-stuffed soup, full of the traditional flavors of the Mediterranean. Alternatively, pesto adds a nutty richness to the soup.
- Serves: 4
- Prep Time: 40 minutes
- Cooking Time: 10 minutes
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1-3 t hot paprika, or to taste
2 14-ounce cans vegetable broth
4 medium plum tomatoes, diced
1 medium yellow summer squash, diced
2 c diced cooked potatoes (see Cooking Tip)
1 1/2 c green beans, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 c frozen spinach (5 ounces)
2 t sherry vinegar or red-wine vinegar
1/4 c chopped fresh basil or prepared pesto
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 6 minutes. Add paprika and cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add broth, tomatoes, squash, potatoes and beans; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just tender, about 12 minutes. Stir in spinach and vinegar; continue cooking until heated through, 2 to 4 minutes more. Ladle soup into bowls and top with fresh basil or a dollop of pesto.
To Make Ahead: Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
Recipes courtesy of Eating Well Inc.