LIFE-SAVING DIET?

02.27.13

Eat Like a Greek: The Mediterranean Diet That Could Save Your Life

A rigorous new study confirms that a diet rich in produce, nuts, olive oil, and wine significantly reduces risks of cardiovascular disease. Lizzie Crocker breaks down the tasty findings.

When a major clinical trial is cut short because it would be “unethical to continue,” it’s safe to say the findings could be life-changing for participants. In the case of a monumental new study measuring how a Mediterranean diet—versus a low-fat diet—affected heart disease among people at high risk, the results were so clearly in favor of the former that researchers ended the trial early.

We’ve long seen correlations between longevity and people who eat like the Greeks, but we’ve never before seen research that shows just how much their diet—as opposed to genetics and lifestyle—factors into their heart health. 

Turns out a handful of nuts a day may do more good than your daily dose of cholesterol-lowering statins. Below, tips and recipes from the latest longevity menu. 

Drink at least seven glasses of wine a week.

Yes, you read that correctly. Now buy yourself a bottle of Sangiovese and raise a glass to the researchers in Spain who have given the elixir of the gods new potency. 

Red wine, in “moderation,” has for some time been thought of as heart-healthy, brimming with antioxidants that may help protect the lining of blood vessels and prevent blood clots. “Habitual drinkers” who followed the Mediterranean diet in the latest study were given the option of downing at least seven glasses per week with meals. A small carafe is part of a balanced Mediterranean breakfast for the centenarian residents of Ikaria, a Greek island where people reach the age of 90 at nearly three times the rate that Americans do. According to a recent study, they enjoy up to four glasses of wine per day

Nuts and olive oil are your bread and butter.

Fruits and veggies are mainstays of the Mediterranean diet, along with legumes and fish. But researchers tracked compliance with the diet to regular consumption of olive oil and nuts. Sure, they’re high in fat, but they may be more effective in preventing heart disease than statins. “The way I see it is, even if people are on medication already, diet has substantial additional benefit,” Dr. Miguel Ángel Martínez-González, who worked on the study at Spain’s Universidad de Navarra, told Reuters

The irony of the findings is that a high-fat diet trumps a low-fat diet by a good measure when it comes to heart health. It may come as a shock to Americans with heart problems whose doctors have advised them to avoid fatty foods at all costs, even if that means opting for diet sodas and heavily processed low-fat snacks to cut down on calories. But the study is a boon to Mediterranean expats in the U.S., particularly those in the restaurant business. 

Take New York City restaurateur Héctor Sanz, who has built a mini-empire of Mediterranean eateries, including the downtown tapas spot Barraca, that offer a modern twist on the traditional fare he grew up eating in his native Spain. Olive oil, he says, is the most important ingredient in his cooking. “We use it on everything,” he told The Daily Beast. It’s also one of the few liquids he keeps in his refrigerator, in addition to wine, water, and gazpacho. 

“That’s all I have to drink in my fridge,” he says, adding that he often comes home “craving a big tall glass of gazpacho, just as I did when I was a child.”

Here’s his family recipe (one to two servings): 
 
2 tomatoes 
⅓ cucumber 
1 or 2 cloves of garlic 
¼ onion 
2 ounces of olive oil (“the creamy factor”) 
splash of vinegar 
salt and pepper to taste

The tomato-based soup shares many of the same ingredients as sofrito—a sauce made with tomato, onion, garlic, herbs, and olive oil—which was consumed daily by participants of the study. 

Eat more fish and fowl, less meat and cheese.

Sorry, Paleo-diet fanatics, but it’s time to limit your red-meat intake, especially if you have a history of heart problems. That doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in a buttery tuna steak. Participants in the study were encouraged to eat “especially fatty” fish at least three times a week. Cheese lovers should opt for a creamy goat over Camembert. 

The bottom line: you don’t have to give up your gourmandise to lower your cholesterol. 

“You can eat a nicely balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and olive oil and lower heart disease by 30 percent,” said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of the cardiovascular medicine department at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “And you can actually enjoy life.”