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Heart health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

January 27, 2019

In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Contemporary scholars dispute the origin of this quote, but irrespective of who uttered these words, they take on no less meaning in today’s world.

Currently, an epidemic of non-communicable diseases is engulfing the world’s population. This is largely related to the consumption of high calorie, nutrient poor diets resulting in rates of obesity leading to premature deaths from high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. In a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), on any given day in this country, 37 percent of the population, or some 84.8 million U.S. adults, consume fast food, which is high in salt, sugar, saturated fat and calories.

As a result of poor-quality diet and lack of regular physical activity, Americans weigh more than ever. The nation’s obesity rate is now approaching 40 percent, having held steady at about 35 percent between 2005 and 2012. In 2016, according to CDC data, five states — Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia — reported obesity rates of more than 35 percent. In 2017, Iowa and Oklahoma joined that list. West Virginia remained highest with a 38 percent adult obesity rate.

A high calorie diet, rich in saturated animal fats and poor in nutrient quality is a major driving force in this epidemic. Not only is this a serious issue on an individual basis, but the impact of the diseases accompanying obesity will place major burdens on the U.S. health care system for years to come. Data for rates of overweight and obesity for youths age 2 to 19 years in 2009-2012 had risen to nearly 1 in 3 individuals, placing this age group at risk for diseases usually seen later in life.

In a recent review of 41 major diets, U.S. News and World Report published the results of a blue-ribbon panel of dieticians, nutritionists, physicians and other recognized experts. They selected the Mediterranean diet as the number one diet for its ease in following, quality nutrient density, ability to facilitate weight loss, and substantial clinical evidence that it reduces the incidence of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Part of the Mediterranean-style diet’s success is due to its ability to create a sense of fullness with ample portions of lower calorie, high nutrient vegetables, beans, legumes, fruits and whole grains at every meal. At the same time, red meat and sweets are consumed very infrequently. This helps control blood sugar levels more effectively. Additionally, bad cholesterol levels go down, good cholesterol levels rise, and blood pressure is lowered, which helps reduce risk for cardiovascular disease.

The Mediterranean culture also includes physical activity and is naturally worked into an individual’s daily routine. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently published the second edition of its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans age 3 and older, which emphasizes how physical activity can be incorporated into daily life. It doesn’t take an hour at the gym to move more and sit less during the day to gain benefits from physical activity.

So, Grandma really did know what she was saying when she told us, “Eat your vegetables, then get outside and play!”

N. Andrew Vaughan, M.D., is a board-certified, fellowship-trained cardiologist at Marshall Health and the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. He specializes in cardiovascular nutrition.

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