May 22, 2013, 9:41 a.m. EDT
Save your life: Eat tomatoes and mozzarella
Mediterranean diet for heart health gains momentum
Here’s a sandwich for members of the sandwich generation: A whole-wheat baguette topped with fresh mozzarella cheese, arugula, a slice of ripe tomato and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Eat one regularly—instead of, say, a cheeseburger—and it just might cut your risk of heart attack, stroke and other “cardiac events” by 30%.
A blockbuster study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month yielded rigorous evidence that a so-called Mediterranean diet slashes the risk of heart problems in people at high risk for these conditions—including the many boomers who find themselves confronting cardiac issues in their 50s. Even for those not in a high-risk category, experts say there are plenty of benefits to eating a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables. A shift away from meat can save money at the grocery store, to say nothing of the savings in medical bills if health problems are averted.
Yet how we eat can be just as important as what we eat, experts say. Call it the Mediterranean lifestyle. It’s important to take our time and avoid skipping meals. Too often, “we’re so hungry we attack food,” said Kathleen Zelman, a nutrition expert with insurer UnitedHealthcare, at a recent webinar. We don’t wait the 20 minutes that it takes to feel full before we go for a second helping, so we overeat. And we neglect exercise.
These kinds of lifestyle choices have taken their toll. Heart disease is the leading killer in the U.S. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, a condition that can contribute to heart disease. The New England Journal of Medicine study showed that changes to the diet can reduce cardiac risks for people with risk factors including smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. What’s more, “at the end of the day, the Mediterranean diet is not such a difficult thing to do,” said Dr. John G. Harold, an attending cardiologist at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles and president of the American College of Cardiology. “And it’s palatable.”
The study, led by researchers at the University of Barcelona, examined the effects of a Mediterranean diet in men and women ages 55 to 80. Participants received either a liter of extra-virgin olive oil weekly or 30 grams of a nut mixture (walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds) daily. In addition to these supplements, they also received dietary training in how to eat meals with large amounts of olive oil, fruits, nuts, vegetables and cereals, a moderate amount of fish and poultry, and a low amount of dairy, red meats, processed meats and sweets. Over a 5-year period, both the nut and the olive oil groups experienced a 30 % reduction in heart attacks and other cardiac events compared with the control group, which simply received advice on eating a low-fat diet.
The Mediterranean diet itself isn’t low fat. In fact, it’s a moderate to high-fat diet, but it’s rich in healthy fats and low in the unhealthy, saturated fats found in animal products like butter and red meat, Zelman said. Products full of healthy fats make people feel fuller longer than the “light” products that people eat—and often overeat—in an attempt to lose weight, separate research suggests. Notably, the new study didn’t restrict participants’ calories or promote exercise. The Mediterranean diet group didn’t lose weight even as participants reaped the diet’s medical benefits.
Not just what you eat, but how you eat
While the study didn’t focus on lifestyle, certain aspects of the Southern European culture contribute to healthier outcomes, such as making time to eat mindfully, experts say. Some dietitians think Americans should emulate the approach of most Europeans, who generally believe it’s good to linger at the dinner table with friends or family. In this model, electronic devices have no place at the table, unless you’re on call for work, not least because gadgets distract us from how much we’re really eating. In fact, scheduling regular “turn-off time” is a good practice even beyond the table, said Stephanie Marston, a marriage and family therapist and CEO of 30 Days to Sanity, a firm specializing in improving resiliency, productivity, and work-life balance.
Of course, finding balance in our diets and in our lives is easier said than done. It’s hard to unplug from work. “Technology is bringing everything everywhere, all the time,” said Kelly Hannum, director of Global Research Insights at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. And boomers caring for older parents, children at home—or both—face real demands on their time that can make healthy meal planning a challenge.
Still, many of today’s professionals often feel on call when they’re really not. Those who are uncertain about their job’s availability requirements should simply ask, some experts advise. Even veterans could approach their bosses with a question like, “Can you please tell me what your expectations are on after-hours availability, so I can be sure I’m meeting them?” Marston suggested. Companies are starting to realize they can’t expect their employees to operate on overdrive all the time, said Marston, who creates well-being programs for Fortune 500 companies.
Boomers seeking to jump-start their Mediterranean lifestyle can even consider taking a trip that part of the world. The eponymous sea borders many countries, not all European, including Morocco, Greece, Spain, Italy and Turkey. Stephanie Serino, a travel consultant with Tzell Travel Group in New York City, has seen an increase in food-focused travel to the area in recent years. More and more, people want to “taste their way through a destination,” she said. These trips can be transformative. “You’re seeing this slower pace of life,” Serino said. “People are living sanely, eating healthily.” Serino said she has longtime clients who have incorporated some of the Mediterranean lifestyle into their own lives after European trips.
To be sure, Southern Europe has seen its share of recent economic woes, which studies show have worsened health for groups including those who can no longer afford their medications. And there’s fast food over there, too. Still, European cultures have plenty to teach us, experts say. Dieting Americans tend to veer from one extreme to another. The Mediterranean diet, in contrast, isn’t about deprivation; it’s about eating foods with satisfying flavors that contribute to longer stretches of satiety. A more balanced and consistent approach, coupled with regular moderate exercise, leaves some wiggle room, Zelman said: “If 80% [of the time] you eat a healthy diet, that 20% can give you some flexibility to indulge.”