Sara Dow is a ACE Certified Weight Management and Fitness Nutrition Specialist. She is also a ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Small Group Trainer at the Y. Twice a month, her blog posts will feature nutrition education, a healthy recipe she has tried and loves, and tips to help you achieve your health goals, as well as answers centered around a nutrition question from a Y member.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and claims more lives each year than all cancer combined. The good news is that dietary and lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. To celebrate American Heart Month, I’m sharing a two-part series highlighting the Mediterranean diet — a world-renowned dietary pattern known for its heart health benefits.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet isn’t so much a strict meal plan as it is a lifestyle. It is based on the traditional dietary pattern of those living in the Mediterranean region, where heart disease rates are the lowest worldwide. The Mediterranean dietary pattern includes:
- minimally processed, fresh, and local plant foods (including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes)
- olive oil
- fish twice a week (especially heart-healthy salmon, sardines, mackerel, and albacore tuna)
- cheese, yogurt, and poultry in moderation
- limited amounts of red meat and processed foods
- red wine in moderation
What are the Health Benefits of a Mediterranean diet?
One of the most well-studied dietary patterns, numerous studies reveal benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, longer lifespans, and better quality of life. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked the Mediterranean diet as the best overall diet for the sixth year.
A new study published in December 2022 found that women who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely during conception and early pregnancy had a 21 percent reduced risk of pregnancy complications and preterm birth.
How do I get Started?
As with any healthy dietary pattern, the most significant gains come with consistency. Here are a few ways to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle. Pick one or two to start and gradually add. Remember, small steps over time lead to lasting results.
- Aim to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Start the day with an extra serving of fruit by adding berries or banana slices to your oatmeal, cereal, or yogurt. Keep an apple, cutie, banana, or ¼ cup of dried fruit in your car, desk drawer, or gym bag. Pair with a handful of almonds (23 = a 1 oz serving) for a heart-healthy snack.
- Replace refined grains with whole grains. If you usually buy white rice, try brown rice instead. If you typically purchase enriched bread, look for 100% whole wheat. Replace all-purpose flour with white whole wheat when baking. This simple swap increases your protein by 15% and boosts fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- Increase your intake of healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. Replace vegetable oil with extra virgin olive oil as your primary cooking oil. Top your salad with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and replace croutons with a sprinkle of nuts or seeds.
- Include legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and beans in your diet. Try replacing half the ground beef in spaghetti, sloppy joes, or chili with brown lentils. This swap adds plant-based protein and stretches your food dollars further since lentils cost far less than meat. Try chickpea pasta (yes, that’s a thing!) instead of traditional pasta.
- Eat fish and seafood at least twice a week. Salmon, sardines, mackerel, and albacore tuna are exceptionally high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Stock up on fish during Lent sales. Frozen fish will stay fresh for up to eight months.
- Limit your consumption of red meat and highly processed foods such as sausage, bacon, and hot dogs. Choose poultry instead or lean cuts of beef and pork with the word “loin” or “round” in the description. For ground meat, look for 90% to 96% lean.
- Use herbs and spices to flavor your food. Salt-free blends like Mrs. Dash provide flavor without sodium. Add a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar to brighten the flavor of almost any dish.
- Eat meals with family and friends whenever possible. Eating socially is a traditional Mediterranean habit that can make mealtimes more enjoyable and satisfying. Consider designating one meal a week (“Together Tuesday”) or month to share with friends.
The Mediterranean diet provides a balanced blend of nutrients and adequate protein, so typically there are no substantial risks associated with following it. Still, it is always good to consult a doctor or registered dietitian before making significant changes to your diet.
A Heart Healthy Recipe…
Savory Slow Cooker Lentils by Sara Dow
- 1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup brown rice
- ¾ cup dried green or brown lentils
- 1 can petite diced tomatoes (I like oregano, basil & garlic seasoned from ALDI)
- 2 cans of water (4 cups)
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 2-3 fresh garlic cloves
Place ingredients in a slow cooker. Cook on high for 3 hours or low for 5 hours. Top with crumbled feta for a Mediterranean flavor profile or shredded cheddar or parmesan cheese for an Italian twist. Store in the fridge for 3-5 days.
Yield: 6 – 1 cup servings
Nutrition: Lentils are a great source of plant-based protein and fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol and promote heart and gut health. Brown rice is a whole grain packed with essential vitamins and minerals. Tomatoes provide vitamin C and lycopene, both powerful antioxidants that boost the immune system and reduce cancer risk. Garlic is a natural antimicrobial that boosts immunity and supports heart health.
Check out this Resource…
The American Heart Association offers a free digital recipe book, Shop Smart Eat Smart, with simple healthy heart recipes. They also provide resources for healthy eating, including meal planning, storage, food prep, and cooking skills.
Heart Health Grocery Store Tours at Metro Market
I am hosting heart-health-focused guided grocery store tours in February at Metro Market. Register online or stop by member services to sign up today! Questions? Drop me a line at [email protected]
About Sara Dow
Hi, I’m Sara and I am passionate about helping people improve their quality of life through the knowledge and practice of good nutrition.
In 2018, I was inspired by the YMCA community to go back to school and pursue my dream of becoming a registered dietitian. I am now in my senior year, double majoring in Nutrition and Dietetics at Kansas State University. I am excited to share with you what I am learning.