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Deep Dive into Heart Health: The Mediterranean Diet

As we dive into February, American Heart Month, the critical need to address heart disease, the leading cause of mortality in the United States, becomes more important than ever.  

The Staggering Statistics Related to Heart Disease in the U.S.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States. In 2021, heart disease claimed the lives of 695,000 individuals, with a staggering statistic revealing a heart attack occurring every 40 seconds. For firefighters and EMTs, often exposed to intense physical exertion, recognizing and mitigating risk factors associated with heart disease is not just advisable but imperative.

Nutrition and Heart Disease

In my practice, our Registered Dietitians take patients (both individuals and workplaces) on an educational journey that helps them make better food choices to not only lose unwanted weight but also, to prevent and treat many chronic conditions, such as heart disease. Many of the food recommendations we make are like those in the Mediterranean Diet.

In this article, I provide heart-health recommendations inspired by this diet, recently celebrated as the best globally for the seventh consecutive year by U.S. News and World Report. Numerous studies have proven the diet's efficacy in reducing heart disease risk, with a notable 25 percent decrease in risk factors observed in a 12-year study of 26,000 women. I don’t consider the Mediterranean Diet, a “diet.” It’s more like a lifestyle.

10 Mediterranean Food Tips, Unveiled

1.)    Abundant Vegetables: Central to the Mediterranean diet, vegetables play a pivotal role. Aim for at least five servings a day, incorporating luscious salads and vegetable side dishes. For those working in environments with limited vegetable options, consider chopping up some bell peppers, celery, or carrots to bring along. I have some patients who stock their work freezer with steam-in-a-bag microwavable veggies.


2.)    Omega-3 Rich Fish: The diet emphasizes the consumption of fish, proven to boost heart health by decreasing triglycerides, lowering blood pressure, and reducing inflammation. Firefighters and EMTs are encouraged to include 2-3 servings of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and herring in their weekly diet.


3.)    Poultry and Lean Meats: While fish is a prominent protein source in the Mediterranean Diet, moderate amounts of poultry and lean meats, such as chicken and turkey, can be included. Selecting lean cuts and incorporating them into grilled or roasted dishes can add variety to your meals without compromising on health. The emphasis remains on quality and moderation.


4.)    Legumes: Staple legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas, are hallmarks of the Mediterranean Diet. These can be conveniently incorporated into workplace snacks, like hummus and veggie packs.


5.)    Whole Grains: Embrace the goodness of whole grains such as oats, quinoa, farro, bulgur, and brown rice. These grains are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, providing sustained energy and contributing to heart health. Swap white bread for whole wheat or whole grain bread for full nutritional benefits.


6.)    Herbs and Spices: Elevate your meals with the aromatic flavors of fresh herbs and spices. The Mediterranean Diet relies on herbs like basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme, as well as spices such as cumin and coriander, to add depth and complexity to dishes. Not only do these additions enhance taste, but they also offer potential health benefits.


7.)    Greek Yogurt: Incorporate Greek yogurt into your diet as a rich source of protein and probiotics. Protein is essential for muscle health, and the probiotics support a healthy gut microbiome. Enjoy it as a standalone snack, mix it with fruits and nuts, or use it as a creamy topping for various dishes. Choose plain, unsweetened varieties to minimize added sugars.


8.)    Nuts and Seeds: Recognized as heart-healthy snacks, nuts and seeds are excellent snack choices and are also add-ons to salads and yogurt! I recommend pistachios, with the highest amount of phytosterols known to reduce cholesterol. Opting for these in workplace vending machines over traditional candy bars can be a small yet impactful change.


9.)    Olive Oil: Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) holds a significant place in Mediterranean cuisine, recognized for its role in protecting the heart by lowering LDL cholesterol and raising HDL (good) cholesterol.


10.)  Dark Chocolate: Yes, even chocolate finds its place in the Mediterranean Diet, provided it's dark chocolate with at least 50 percent cocoa. Rich in flavanols, it aids in releasing nitric oxide, improving blood flow.

Reflecting on American Heart Month:

Backed by a wealth of research, this Mediterranean Diet offers a comprehensive and sustainable means of promoting heart health and overall well-being. In the face of heart disease's staggering statistics, adopting a Mediterranean-inspired lifestyle can be a powerful step toward fortifying the hearts of those who dedicate their lives to safeguarding others.

In my upcoming blog post, I am excited to inform you about my ‘Women of Impact' campaign. As a dedicated board member of the American Heart Association, my commitment to advancing heart research is unwavering. I aspire to contribute tirelessly to initiatives that will ultimately lead to a reduction in the number of individuals affected by this pervasive disease.


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