Mediterranean diet for heart health

You may have read about a recent Spanish study (published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine) touting the benefits of a Mediterranean diet in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. There is certainly nothing new about the Mediterranean diet, but I am pleased to see that it’s currently garnering headlines. While not a “diet” in the weight-loss sense, the Mediterranean diet is more of a way of life, a plant-based eating pattern that incorporates lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, and olive oil, limiting meats and sweets to occasional foods. This new study—which showed a whopping 30% decrease in risk of cardiovascular disease among at-risk individuals following the diet—solidifies the notion that following a Mediterranean-style diet protects our hearts and preserves health.

Ready to get started? It’s easy to begin incorporating Mediterranean concepts into your daily diet—no foods are entirely off limits, there is an emphasis on delicious produce and fish that are abundant here in the Pacific Northwest, and it even includes a daily serving of wine! Check out this Mediterranean diet pyramid for a quick reference, and use the following tips for inspiration:

  • At every meal, include plant foods such a vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and whole grains. Begin the meal with a salad or hearty vegetable soup, swap out meat for beans to create vegetarian entrées, experiment with whole grains such as quinoa and farro instead of the usual brown rice and whole wheat pasta (although those are both great choices also!).
  • Add healthy fats, protein, and fiber to your diet with nuts and seeds (choose plain, not salted or honey-roasted)—sprinkle sunflower or pumpkin seeds onto salads, spread almond or peanut butter on whole grain bread, stir walnuts into your morning oatmeal, or just have a handful of nuts as a filling snack.
  • Use extra virgin olive oil instead of butter, margarine, or other oils—add a splash to your sauté pan, mix it with vinegar or lemon juice for a quick salad dressing, and season it with lemon zest and cracked black pepper to use as a dip for whole grain bread.
  • Eat fish and seafood at least twice a week, while reducing poultry, eggs, and dairy (low-fat and non-fat) to small portions daily (or less). Limit red meats to a few times per month, and remember that a serving of meat, poultry, or fish is 3 ounces (about the size of a deck of cards). Think of protein foods as a complement to your produce-rich meals, instead of as the main event!
  • Now about that wine…the Mediterranean diet does allow wine “in moderation,” which is up to one 5-ounce glass per day for women or two per day for men (this is of course optional—don’t consume alcohol if it’s unsafe or otherwise unwise for you).
  • Daily physical activity is a part of the Mediterranean lifestyle, along with enjoying meals with others. I find this last part particularly important—sitting down for a meal with loved ones rather than eating in the car or in front of the TV goes a long way towards reducing stress and fostering healthy relationships (and healthy hearts!).

Most Portland-area farmers’ markets gear up in May and are a great place to load up on fruits, vegetables, seafood, and other delicious local foods. I’m especially looking forward to the OHSU Farmers Market, which takes place on Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. from June 4 through October 15. This weekly market is a convenient way for me to incorporate the healthy Mediterranean lifestyle into my busy Portland life.


Tracy Severson is an outpatient clinical dietitian at OHSU. She earned Bachelor’s degrees in Nutritional Sciences and Sociology from the University of Arizona and completed her training to become a Registered Dietitian (R.D.) at the University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. Since becoming an R.D., she has also completed a Certificate of Training in Adult Weight Management.

Tracy moved to Portland from Tucson in 2010, and has worked at OHSU since 2011. She works with the OHSU Surgical Weight Reduction clinic and Cardiac Rehab program, and also provides medical nutrition therapy for General Adult Outpatient Clinics at OHSU.