Food Matters: Mediterranean diet might help reverse heart disease

By Chuck NewcombMarch 22, 2013 

Is there some way to reverse heart disease? Once someone has a heart attack (MI or Myocardial Infarction) they often find themselves on a steady downhill slope leading to more heart damage and eventually death from a massive heart attack. It used to be common practice for someone to spend days or weeks in the hospital then do whatever they could to keep from exerting themselves.

For quite a while there was speculation and some evidence suggesting a vegan (no animal products) diet can actually reverse the damage to heart tissue from a heart attack. Dr. Dean Ornish, president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, has influenced many to try to become vegan. Former President Bill Clinton, in a 2010 CNN interview, said Dr. Ornish's and his colleague Dr. Esselstyn's writings helped convince him that he could reverse his heart disease in that way.

During his presidency he was well known for his love of junk food and he frequently enjoyed such indulgences as cheeseburgers with French fries and ice cream shakes. Clinton said, "I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits. I drink a protein supplement every morning. I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder...[eating this way] changed my whole metabolism and I lost 24 pounds. I got back to what I weighed in high school." Other sources seem to suggest he simply cut back on desserts and junk food. He was always famous for sneaking fast food while Hillary kept on him to eat more healthfully.

Cutting back here and there can certain promote some modest weight loss, but to actually reverse heart disease it really does take some pretty drastic moves -- and for the long-term. Research has found that 82 percent of people since 1986 who had gone on a plant-based diet had begun to heal themselves; with some even experiencing arterial blockage clean up.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to be a perfect fit for those wanting to make significant improvements in their lives.

In March 2011, an analysis of 50 studies linked the Mediterranean diet to a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of risk factors (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and abdominal fat) that make heart disease, diabetes, and stroke more likely.

A study out of Spain published online in the New England Journal of Medicine included 7,447 people at high risk for cardiovascular disease who were put on one of three diets including a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil. The authors report that the demonstrated benefits of the Mediterranean diet may be explained by several different factors, including moderate alcohol consumption, low consumption of meat, and high consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, and olive oil.

Until now, evidence that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of heart disease was weak, based mostly on studies showing that people from Mediterranean countries seemed to have lower rates of heart disease.

In addition to regular exercise, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes:

Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil.

Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods.

Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month.

Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week. (Avoiding meat altogether would not make the diet less healthy.)

Drinking red wine in moderation (optional).

The diet also recognizes the importance of enjoying meals with family and friends.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting Registered Dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at: MHALosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.

Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting Registered Dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Atte

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