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The Mediterranean Diet and Heart Health

by Matt Durkin
MSc Nutrition Specialist

The food you eat can have a massive bearing on the condition of your heart. In this article, we are going to see whether the Mediterranean diet can live up the hype and keep your heart healthy, so you can decide whether this is a way of life worth considering. 

Introducing the Mediterranean Diet

In the field of nutrition, there are few topics that have received more attention than the Mediterranean diet. This pattern of eating began gathering attention in the 1950s and 60s, when the inhabitants of certain Greek islands were found to have some of the longest life expectancies in the world, mostly thanks to a small prevalence of chronic illnesses such as heart disease. 

The Mediterranean is a vast region that covers several countries, and as a result, there are arguments over the specifics of such a diet. That being said, however, the key aspects of the diet are for the most part universally accepted. 

Those embarking on the Mediterranean diet will focus mostly on consuming whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices and of course, olive oil. Fish and seafood should be consumed at least twice per week with moderate amounts of poultry, eggs and dairy. 

On the other hand, red meat, sweets, pastries and fizzy drinks should be consumed only very occasionally, if at all. With regards to fluids, water should be consumed throughout the day, with red wine being saved for meal times and limited to one to two small glasses per day. Sounds pretty straight-forward and tasty, doesn’t it?  

It is of fundamental importance to understand though that Mediterranean peoples were so healthy because of their overall lifestyle, not just their diet. We say “were”, because unfortunately many of these people, especially the Greeks, have abandoned the diet and lifestyle that made them the picture of health. This is reflected in recent statistics as the Greeks now have the most obese children in the developed world. 

To reap the most benefit for your health, it is therefore important to copy their lifestyle from yesteryear, which incorporated being physically active every day, getting outdoors and, last but not least, emphasising the importance of mealtimes and socialising. 

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

A recent documentary on TV asked a group of leading nutritionists to highlight some of the best and worst diets in the world. It should come as no surprise that the diet of the 20th century Italians and Greeks faired very well - second and third best to be exact - with the Icelandic diet taking the top step of the podium. 

This high praise is thanks to a plethora of scientific evidence that has pointed to the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet time and time again. This isn’t just exclusive to heart health either, as we will find out later in this section. 

Heart Health

The cardiovascular system incorporates the intricate workings of the heart, blood and vessels which ensure our cells receive the nutrients needed. Given the importance of our cardiovascular system, you would have thought that we would take better care of it. Unfortunately, heart disease is still the biggest cause of mortality worldwide, accounting for over a third of all deaths. 

Heart disease can have very few noticeable symptoms, so it is very important to get a regular check-up. Once at the doctors, body weight, waist circumference and markers such as blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels will all be measured. It is fascinating to mention that the Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve all of these variables.

The PREDIMED study which concluded in 2013 has received the most widespread attention. This large-scale study recruited nearly 7500 participants who had been told by a clinician that they were at high risk of heart disease.

The participants were randomly assigned to a Mediterranean diet (as described earlier) with added olive oil (4 tablespoons/60ml per day), a Mediterranean diet with extra nuts (30g per day) or a traditional low-fat diet. 

The researchers concluded that following a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of suffering from a heart attack, stroke or dying from a heart-related condition by almost a third compared to the low-fat group. It is no wonder then that the PREDIMED study was extensively covered by media outlets worldwide. 

Looking at the markers of heart and metabolic health, the researchers also found that in as little as 3 months, both styles of the Mediterranean diet were effective at reducing blood sugar and systolic blood pressure by around 5%, with substantial reductions noted in CRP – a key measure of inflammation.  

In addition to this, there were massive improvements in cholesterol. Many of us will be familiar with HDL and LDL cholesterol, which are widely known as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol respectively. To complement the other findings, the researchers found that the Mediterranean diet increased HDL and lowered LDL whilst also reducing the amount of damaged (oxidised) cholesterol – the type that tends to clog the arteries. 

In science, things are never normally as clear-cut as the evidence presented here. It shows that if you value the condition of your heart, you needn’t look any further than the Mediterranean diet.


Diabetes, which is characterised by chronically high blood sugar, is known to affect 8% of the world’s adult population. Unsurprisingly, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be one of the few effective treatments for this devastating condition.

One study published in 2009 recruited 215 overweight or obese men and women who had recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This investigation, which was 4 years long in its entirety, randomly assigned the participants to the Mediterranean diet or a low-fat alternative. 

At the end of this investigation, 70% of the participants on the low-fat diet failed to control their condition through diet alone and unfortunately required medication. This is in contrast to the 44% who followed the Mediterranean diet. In other words, over half of the participants on the med diet could effectively control their diabetes without needing medication – the same medication that can have some severe side-effects. 

If you are one of the millions around the world who is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes every year, adopting a Mediterranean diet could be one of the smartest choices you could make for your health and longevity. 

Weight Loss

Within reason, any diet can work for weight loss so long as more calories are burnt than consumed. The most important thing though is finding a pattern of eating that you can stick with over the long term.

Not only has the Mediterranean diet shown to be effective for weight loss, it also appears to be a diet that many people find is sustainable. One way to tell how hard people find a diet is to simply look at how many participants drop out of research studies. 

Numerous large-scale scientific studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet is more effective than the traditional low-fat diet, and is on-par with a low carbohydrate diet. Although many people enjoy a low carb diet and can stick to it long term, on the whole, the Mediterranean diet is perceived as easier to adhere to. This is because it is very inclusive, promoting a wide range of foods and of course some alcohol – something not recommended on a low carb plan. 

So although the Mediterranean diet is best known for its protection against heart issues, it isn’t bad for decreasing the waist-line either. 

Cognitive Function 

Within 6 years, it is believed that over a million Brits will suffer from dementia. There is research emerging that indicates the food we eat has a key role to play in preventing cognitive decline. 

Leading experts in the field have developed the MIND diet which is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet – the one regularly used to combat high blood pressure. 

The MIND diet is based on 10 ‘brain-foods’ which should be consumed regularly. These are: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, legumes, whole grains, seafood, poultry, olive oil and wine in moderation. In contrast, it is recommended that red meat, butter/margarine, cheese, pastries/sweets and fried and fast food is omitted. So in its entirety, it’s very similar indeed to the Mediterranean diet.

Preliminary research has found that those who followed the MIND diet were half as likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s as people following a traditional diet. These are pretty staggering findings and hopefully, future research will build upon this success. 

Reasons Behind the Benefits

By now you may be thinking: “but what is it that makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy”? There is no single factor that is behind the success of this eating plan, rather an amalgamation of numerous key reasons as we explain below. 

Food Quality – As mentioned earlier, this diet is so successful because of the quality of the food. The Mediterranean diet is high in fresh produce that is typically grown in ideal, nutrient-rich conditions. This is complemented by the fact that fatty, sugary, processed and deep-fried foods are kept to a minimum. 

Fibre – The rich array of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes ensure that the diet is rich in fibre. Not only is fibre known to help digestive function and decrease the risk of bowel cancer, it can also improve cholesterol, blood sugar and help to regulate appetite. Simply put, a fibre-rich diet is very important for good health.

Micronutrients – Looking at the Mediterranean diet in its entirety, it is packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other essential nutrients such as the omega 3 fatty acids. Although these are known as micronutrients, because they are needed in only small amounts, they still have a massive impact on our health. 

Olive Oil – Olive oil is one of the best sources of a monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid, which has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and combat inflammation. Similarly, olive oil contains a polyphenol called hydroxytyrosol, which is proven to protect cholesterol from damage, thus helping to keep arteries clear. Our new SimplyGo Heart formula has been designed to include olive extract for this specific purpose. 

Resveratrol – This powerful antioxidant is found in red grape skins, and is therefore present in red wine. This nutrient has interested scientists for years, largely because of the ‘French paradox’. This is the enigma of how the French have a high intake of saturated fat but low incidences of heart disease. Although there are a few candidates for explaining this, many experts believe Resveratrol is a key player. 

Overall Lifestyle – As alluded to throughout this article, the Mediterranean diet is much more than just what is put on your plate; it is a way of life. The lifestyle enjoyed by the Mediterranean people in the 1960s and 70s was much less stressful than what it is today. Moreover, that lifestyle saw much more exercise and physical activity as well as more time outside in the sun. Finally, food is seen as much more than just fuel, with meals being a social occasion shared with friends and family, rather than eating mindlessly in front of the television. 


This article has uncovered what constituents the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and outlined the impressive research behind it. Hopefully, this has stimulated more people to adopt some of the positives from this way of life, as after all, many of us in the UK have a long way to go when it comes to our diet and lifestyle.

Not only is the Mediterranean diet one of the best diets you could follow, it is also inclusive and very palatable. So why not give it a try today, and begin to enjoy the improvements to your overall health and wellbeing. 


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