Experts Weigh In On Why the Mediterranean Diet Is Good For Women’s Heart Health
A recent study has helped further support the longstanding recommendation that many doctors give about the Mediterranean diet and its many benefits for maintaining a healthy heart. This research highlights the potential to significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death, especially in women.
In order to conduct the study, a team of researchers gathered data from 16 previously published studies involving over 720,000 female participants. These studies looked at the relationship between diet and heart disease. The results, published in the journal Heart, showed that women who followed the Mediterranean-style diet closely had a 24 percent lower chance of developing cardiovascular diseases and a 23 percent lower likelihood of premature death from any cause.
The study reaffirms the positive impact of the Mediterranean diet on women’s cardiovascular health and overall longevity. By following this dietary pattern, individuals can enhance their well-being and mitigate the risks of heart disease and premature mortality.
Senior study author, Sarah Zaman, MBBS, PhD, and academic interventional cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, said, “There’s no ‘one-diet-fits-all,’ but there are key heart-friendly foods and nutrients that may make the Mediterranean diet particularly beneficial to help reduce the risk of future cardiovascular events.”
“Diet plays a huge role in preventing cardiovascular events and early deaths. Poor diet is linked with many lifestyle-related risk factors of heart disease like obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, and these can all substantially increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Zaman adds.
The Mediterranean Diet Can Benefit Hearts in Women of All Races
Moreover, the protective influence of a Mediterranean diet on women’s cardiovascular health seemed consistent across various racial and ethnic groups. The examination of studies predominantly involving white European women revealed 24 percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease events associated with the Mediterranean diet. Similarly, in studies encompassing women from diverse regions and racial or ethnic backgrounds, the diet was linked to a 21 percent lower risk.
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge a limitation of the study. The inclusion of smaller studies in the analysis introduced the possibility of self-reported dietary habits, which could have led to inaccuracies in recalling or reporting adherence to a Mediterranean-style eating pattern. The researchers highlight the need for caution when interpreting these findings due to this potential source of bias.
According to a professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, Michal Melamed, MD, says, “These studies are observational in nature and therefore it may not just be the diet, but other things the women were doing that made them less likely to have cardiovascular events.” Notably, Dr. Melamed was not involved in the study.
Regardless, Dr. Melamed also says that the findings are still in line with the other diet research. Furthermore, the results were found to also be in line with recommendations from the American Heart Association, which endorses the Mediterranean diet as ‘a heart-healthy eating pattern that can reduce the risk of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease.’
What Exactly Is the Mediterranean Diet?
These are the hallmarks of a Mediterranean diet:
- lots of whole fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- nuts and legumes
- healthy fats like olive oil
- regular consumption of fish and seafood
- moderate consumption of dairy products like cheese and yogurt
- little or no consumption of red and processed meats
While consuming a heart-healthy diet is especially important for women after they’ve menopaused, professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Frank Hu, MD, PhD, says, “But there’s no single magic bullet for cardiovascular disease prevention.” Dr. Hu was also not involved in the study.
Small Changes Towards Plant-Based Eating Can Make a Difference
It’s important to note that every little bit helps. However, Dr. Hu explains that those who aren’t ready to give up red meat or eat a mostly plant-based diet can still see some heart health benefits when making small changes in their eating habits. He also recommends the following changes as a good place to start:
- Replace animal fats with extra virgin olive oil.
- Eat whole-grain versions of bread, pasta, or rice instead of white bread or heavily processed grains.
- Drink unsweetened tea, coffee, or water instead of sugary beverages.
- Eat more seafood and lean protein instead of red and processed meat.
“Although it may not be feasible to make all these changes overnight for most people, small gradual changes over time can still make a big difference in improving one’s diet quality and cardiometabolic health in the long run,” Dr. Hu says.
How to Maintain Good Heart Health
Professor and dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at the University of California in San Diego, Cheryl Anderson, PhD, also shares that aside from what people eat, it’s also how much they eat that matters when it comes to heart health.
She points out that even with a healthy eating pattern such as that of the Mediterranean diet, getting the right amount of calories – not too much – is important to maintain a healthy weight and get the most benefits. She was also not involved in the new study.
Dr. Anderson shares, “More specifically, eating foods in a healthful pattern can help people maintain a healthy weight, and healthy levels of blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood lipids [cholesterol].”
Other things to consider when it comes to heart health and having a healthy lifestyle are participating in forms of physical activity a few times a week, getting optimal sleep and not smoking or using tobacco.