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February 4, 2019

February is Heart Health Month; a time to bring attention to the importance of cardiovascular health, and what we can do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, heart disease affects approximately  1 in 12 Canadian adults (that’s 2.4 million of us!) , and is the second leading cause of death in Canada.

Some of the best ways to reduce our personal risk of heart disease include:

  • Being smoke free
  • Staying physically active
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet

Makes sense right? But with so many different diets being touted by the media and celebrities alike, it’s hard to know what truly is a healthy, balanced diet.

For the eighth year in a row, the expert panel at the US News & World Report have put the Mediterranean Diet in the top spot on their annual Best Diets ranking report. In fact, the Mediterranean Diet got the high score for “best overall diet”, “best diabetes diet”, “best healthy eating diet” and “best heart healthy diet” along with several others.  So what is it about the Mediterranean Diet that sets it apart from so many other popular diets and does it really deserve all this acclamation?

The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

There is a growing body of scientific research demonstrating the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. Some of these benefits include:

  • a reduced risk of developing heart disease
  • a reduced risk of depression
  • a reduced risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s
  • improved cholesterol levels
  • lower blood pressure
  • improved blood sugar control for those with type 2 diabetes

With all these great potential benefits, it would be reasonable to assume that the Mediterranean Diet must be a very restrictive diet that’s difficult to follow. I’m happy to tell you, it’s quite the opposite!

The Diet that isn’t really a Diet

While its name suggests otherwise, the Mediterranean Diet really isn’t a typical diet; it’s a lifestyle! In other words it’s not designed to be restrictive, to cut out entire food groups or to vilify a particular macronutrient (sorry keto). Instead the focus is on establishing healthy eating patterns that emphasize whole foods, home cooking and a healthy relationship with food.  Let’s have a closer look and you’ll see what I mean.

Tips for following the Mediterranean Diet

1.       Choose plant –based food more often

  • Beans, chickpeas, peas and lentils are all excellent sources of protein, soluble fibre and many important nutrients such as potassium, iron and magnesium.
  • Not only do they help keep us full, they can also help improve blood sugar control and reduce cholesterol
  • Try adding them to soups, stews, salads or pasta dishes daily

2.       Choose whole grains

  • Choosing whole grains instead of white or refined grains more often means you’ll get more of the fibre, B vitamins and iron, but it will also help with bowel regularity and blood sugar control
  • Some suggestions for whole grains include steel cut oats, quinoa, brown rice, barley, bulgur and millet

3.       Eat vegetables with 2 meals/day

  • It’s no secret that vegetables offer a wide variety of essential vitamins and minerals, but they are a great source of important antioxidants and fibre.
  • Fill half of your plate with vegetables, either raw, cooked or leafy greens, to help boost the nutritional value of any meal
  • Reach for fresh, seasonal produce when possible; but don’t forget that frozen or even canned vegetables (without added salt) can be a great option too

4.       Choose healthy fats

  • Use olive oil for cooking or on salads; this heart healthy fat actually helps lower LDL (the bad cholesterol) and increase HDL (the good cholesterol)
  • Include unsalted nuts and seeds in your daily routine, but remember to watch your portion size (i.e. 10-12 almonds, 5-6 walnuts or 2 tbsp. nut butter)

5.       Include fish/seafood weekly; choose red meat less often

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, trout or sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats have benefits for both the heart and the brain
  • White fish, such as tilapia, cod and tuna, also contain healthy fats and are a great source of protein
  • Have fish 2-3times/week
  • Red meat (beef, goat, lamb or pork) and processed meats are high in saturated fats and/or sodium. Keep portions small when having and try replacing with lean meats (chicken, turkey), fish or plant-proteins more often

6.       Drink mostly water

  • Water is a great way to quench your thirst and stay hydrated without added calories, sugar or sodium
  • Some tips to help increase your intake include drinking hot or cold water, carrying a reusable water bottle with you, adding fruits, vegetables or herbs to infuse your water or carbonated water
  • Here are a few great flavor combinations to try
    • Raspberries and cucumber
    • Fresh basil and strawberries
    • Blackberries and mint

7.       Skip the salt in cooking

  • Use herbs, spices, garlic and onions instead of salt in cooking

8.       Limit sweets; choose fruit instead

  • Limit sweets such as candies, pastries, desserts, sweetened pop and juice to 1-2 servings/week
  • Choose whole fruit to satisfy your sweet craving

9.       Enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle

  • Make time to cook and prepare meals
  • Whenever possible, cook and eat with family and friends
  • Include three meals a day
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day
  • Get enough rest

If you have other questions about the Mediterranean Diet or any other nutrition questions, contact our team at West Toronto Diabetes Education Program to arrange to meet with one of our Registered Dietitians.

Happy Heart Health Month Everyone!

Ashley Rieder
Registered Dietitian, CDE

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