Smart and Delicious Eating for a Healthy Heart: Comparing Traditional Diets

By Rob Leighton and Dr. Richard Collins

The Mediterranean Diet // With as much as 40 percent of daily caloric intake coming from fat, the Mediterranean diet challenged the widely held belief that low-fat eating would best advance heart health. The fats are unprocessed and unsaturated, vegetables and fruits are central to these eating traditions. Fish, shellfish, red meat, dairy, and poultry are used in moderation. Herbs and spices, now recognized as powerful antioxidants, are used in many recipes, with sweets consumed in small portions.

The China Study // In his widely read book, The China Study, epidemiologist T. Colin Campbell explored the health benefits of the diet in rural China. Campbell reported that the death rate from heart disease among American men was 17 times higher than that of rural Chinese men. He further reported that the average cholesterol levels in much of rural China were substantially lower, in some cases by nearly one half, than the average levels found in the United States. Some elements of the rural Chinese diet were similar to the Mediterranean diet. It emphasizes high consumption of plant-based foods and a very limited intake of animal foods. However, Campbell found that, unlike the Mediterranean diet, the rural Chinese diet involves a much lower intake of all types of fat, about 15 percent of total daily calories. Lower amounts of proteins also were consumed.
The Okinawan Diet // Okinawans living in southern Japan have very long life expectancies. The Okinawan diet is also very low fat with small amounts of protein. Complex carbohydrates represent about 90 percent of the calories. Vegetables are typically eaten at every meal, including breakfast. Sweet potatoes are the staple food and soy (as tofu) and seaweed are also eaten daily. While fish and pork are part of the menu, about 10 percent of the daily diet consisted of protein and fat. Green tea is also regularly consumed.
Traditional Eskimo Diet // In the 1970s, Eskimos eating a diet blending traditional eating habits with some modern food were associated with lower levels of heart disease. Their diets deliver low levels of saturated fatty acids and high levels of monounsaturated and Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.
Building on the Dietary Insights
Is one of these diets better than the other? In comparison with the standard American diet, all are associated with dramatic reductions in cardiovascular disease. The following are common elements and differences in macronutrients:
• Fats
›› Total fat is not a defining characteristic across these diets. The traditional Mediterranean and Eskimo diet delivers more fat than the standard American diets. The Asian diets deliver less.
›› Low levels of saturated fats were common in all the diets. Trans fats were virtually absent from these diets.
• Proteins
›› Protein represented the smallest component of these heart healthy diets, and at levels much lower than many American’s believe is required for good health.
• Carbohydrates
›› Minimally processed, complex carbohydrates, dominate these eating traditions. None were low carbohydrate but simple carbohydrates such as sugar, honey, or processed, fiber-poor grains were used at low levels. The central lesson: heart-healthy eating is built around the complex carbohydrate, nutrient-rich whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruits. From here, medical experts of equal excellence advocate differing eating standards. Some argue that no animal products and very restricted levels of fats should be consumed. Others make room for somewhat higher levels of fats coupled with limited amount of lean meats, fish, and non-fat dairy products. Still others find room for higher levels of animal proteins and healthier monounsaturated fats and selected polyunsaturated fats. What is the right answer? As long as you adopt a diet with a plant based foundation, the macronutrient balance may be less important for cardiovascular health. Look to nutrition to advance wellness in the form of measurable improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and inflammatory levels.