The Diet That’s Better For Your Heart Than Exercise

Jenna Birch

In recent years, science has proven that the Mediterranean diet is key to longevity time and time again — and we now have even more conclusive proof. (Photo: Doris.H/Westend61/Corbis)

Adults who follow the Mediterranean diet closely can slash their risk of heart disease by a whopping 47 percent. What’s equally, or more, impressive (depending on your love/hate relationship with working out) is that this eating plan has an even greater protective effect on the heart than regular exercise. 

Both findings were gleaned from an eleven-year study of the Mediterranean diet, presented Wednesday at the American College of Cardiology's 64th Annual Scientific Session in San Diego.

Researchers gathered data from 2,500 Greek adults age 18 and 89 from 2001 to 2012. Participants also provided a wealth of information on their lifestyle, medical history and dietary habits before the study began, five years into the research and again at the end of the study.

Participants’ adherence to the Med diet was scored on a 1 to 55 scale. Taking into account other factors that would affect risk, those who earned marks in the top third had a 47 percent lower chance of getting heart disease over the 10-year period compared to those who fell in the bottom third. Each one-point increase or decrease in the adherence score resulted in a roughly three percent fluctuation in heart disease risk.

This definitely isn’t the first research to track the effects of the Mediterranean diet — in recent years, science has proved the Mediterranean diet is key to longevity time and time again — but it’s the first to monitor heart disease in the general population over the course of a full decade.

Related: 5 Healthy Eating Habits To Steal From Europeans

As an interesting side note, women tended to be better at following the diet than men, even though it seems to work equally well for everyone. “Our study shows that the Mediterranean diet is a beneficial intervention for all types of people — in both genders, in all age groups, and in both healthy people and those with health conditions,”says Ekavi Georgousopoulou, a Ph.D. candidate at Harokopio University in Athens, Greece, in a press release. “It also reveals that the Mediterranean diet has direct benefits for heart health, in addition to its indirect benefits in managing diabetes, hypertension and inflammation.”

Keri Gans, MS, RD, author of The Small Change Diet, isn’t surprised by the results of this study. “It supports the eating principles that dieticians have believed in for some time now,” she tells Yahoo Health

Fruits, Veggies & Whole Grains

Whether you think of it as the “Mediterranean Diet”or simply as sane, healthy eating, the premise is exactly the same. “The important point of the diet is that it relies on an abundance of food from plant sources,” Gans says. “Lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts — and, although not all people think of them as healthy, potatoes and breads, too, preferably of the whole-grain variety.”

Olive Oil, Dairy and Wine

There’s also room for a little richness and indulgence on this diet, says Gans. “Healthy fats like olive oil and avocado are staples, choosing these over butter and margarine,” she says. “Modest dairy intake daily is also acceptable, like an ounce of cheese or a cup of Greek yogurt, as well as a glass of red wine a day.”

Related: 16 Unexpected Ways to Add Years to Your Life 

Just keep said wine serving to a maximum six-ounce pour, though. “‘Be smart’ is always my P.S. with wine,” she says. “It shouldn’t be enough for three people.”

Lean Meats & Eggs

In terms of protein, Gans says to load up on lean cuts. “Opt for fish and poultry over red meat,” she says. “The diet also encourages the use of eggs, with garlic and herbs to season.” 

Why is this such an effective healthy eating strategy, for stable weight and cardiovascular perks? “A lot of these foods have anti-inflammatory benefits,” Gans says. “And that’s the correlation. You’ve also got monounsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol levels, and the diet is high in fiber, which is also linked to lower heart disease risk.”

Try not to think of it as a “diet,” which can sound rigid and laborious; Gans references a recent study showing that simply focusing on fiber intake can be more effective for weight loss than trying to adhere to specific dietary principles.

Related: Eat More (Yes, More!) Of This Ingredient To Slim Down, Effortlessly

Instead, simply start thinking of the Med plan as “the foundation of healthy eating,” says Gans. Focus on selecting staples like whole grains, lean white meats, healthy fats, fiber, low-fat dairy, fruits and veggies. Do that, and you’ll set yourself up for long-term health. 

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