Ask the Expert: Heart Healthy Eats

Dr. Mark Vossler on taking up the simple, tasty and healthy Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet, so called because of its emphasis on fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and olive oil, has been the subject of the first major clinical trial studying its link with heart health; results published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April indicate that this style of eating could prevent about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease.

We asked Dr. Mark Vossler, medical director of EvergreenHealth’s heart failure program and Cardiac Enhancement Center, about how to best incorporate it into heart-healthy eating habits. The cardiologist uses it as an essential part of his treatment recommendations for heart disease patients. The bonus, according to Vossler? “It actually tastes good.”

What are we learning about the Mediterranean diet?

There is a lot of dietary advice out there, but very few diets have been recommended with the same rigorous science as the Mediterranean diet. [It] has a substantial amount of scientific support showing a major impact on reducing risks of heart attack and stroke. 

Can this diet eliminate the need for some cardio medications?

If you don’t [have heart disease], and are working to prevent it, the Mediterranean diet will decrease your chance of heart attack and may eliminate your need to ever take medications. If you already have heart disease, following the diet will still go a long way towards preventing heart attacks and strokes, and may reduce your [need for] medications.

How should people incorporate these foods into their meals?

You can keep it simple if you do a few key things: Eat fish twice a week, avoid red meat as much as possible, replace your oils with olive or canola oil and double the amount of fruits and vegetables that you eat. I tell patients to take a second helping of the salad or vegetable dish before eating more of anything else. I also encourage patients to eat their meals with other people as much as possible and not alone in front of the TV. When you are talking and interacting with other people, you won’t eat as fast or as much. The exercise component is also key to this diet. Many of the societies who have adhered to it are rural communities in seafaring countries where people are naturally very active, so I also encourage patients to be moderately physically active. Even if you can only follow these principles 80 percent of the time, you will be a lot healthier.

Are there any precautions?

I tell patients to be aware of the nuts and oils. A handful of nuts a day is a good amount, and they should avoid the candied or heavily salted kinds. I’m also cautious about recommending the one to two glasses of red wine traditionally associated with the Mediterranean diet. Red wine may have antioxidant benefits, but drinking more than the one to two glasses a day can cause many other problems. +