The Mediterranean diet consistently finds its way to the top of national diet rankings (including U.S. News & World Report’s Best Diets of 2018). Some would argue it’s not even really a diet — at least not in the conventional sense of following prescribed point systems like Weight Watchers or macronutrient distributions like keto. Rather, this eating plan simply involves patterning food choices after those traditionally made by people living in southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Basic building blocks include fruits and vegetables, legumes and fish, whole grains, moderate dairy and meat, plenty of olive oil, and some red wine.

Bowls of freshly made hummus

In addition to being less restrictive than other popular eating plans, this diet-that’s-not-a-diet outshines many others with scientific evidence for its health benefits. Consistently consuming foods that fall under its umbrella results in reduced rates of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and inflammation. And perhaps most notably, numerous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet improves heart health. So what is it about this type of eating that could make such a difference for your health — especially your heart? Let’s break it down, category by category, for a closer look.

1. Fruits and Vegetables: You might recall from high school biology that the heart is a muscle, just like any other in the body. Therefore, for healthy contraction, it requires a steady supply of vitamins and minerals like potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. You won’t get these rock-star nutrients from cookies and candy — or even from most protein sources like meat or fish. Instead, they’re found in fruits and vegetables. The exact breakdown of your fruit and veggie choices matters less than choosing a variety of colors and types.

2. Legumes: Legumes also lend a hand when it comes to providing the vitamins and minerals your heart needs to reach its 100,000 pumps a day. Not only do beans, lentils, and nuts keep your body’s most important muscle ticking, but they’re an excellent source of fiber with low saturated fat. Research reveals that healthy blood cholesterol has more to do with these nutrients in the diet than with dietary cholesterol itself.

3. Moderate Dairy: Dairy doesn’t have to make a wholesale exit from your plate on the Mediterranean diet. Instead, the Mediterranean norm looks more like one serving (about six tablespoons) of full-fat dairy per day. A recent study linked this level of consumption to a 14 percent lower risk or coronary heart disease. More than cheese and milk, many Mediterranean cultures focus on probiotic-rich yogurt, a proven inflammation reducer. Lower inflammation equals lower risk of disease, period.

Fish served with vegetables and sauce

4. Whole Grains: Grains can take one of two paths during processing. Either their bran and germ are kept intact, leaving them “whole,” or these fiber-rich components are stripped, making them “refined.” When you eat the untouched fiber in whole grains, it slows the breakdown of carbohydrates in your digestive tract into glucose. This means your blood sugar stays within healthy boundaries, making for healthier blood vessels. Go overboard with refined grains, though, and your blood sugar may rage out of control, leading to vascular problems — and, ultimately, heart disease.

5. Seafood: I scream, you scream, we all scream for… mackerel? You’ve probably heard that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish help your heart, but why? Omega-3s reduce triglycerides, or undesirable fats, in your blood. Some studies have even shown them to dilate the blood vessels, allowing for easier transit of blood to and from the heart. Eating fish at least twice a week, like people do in cultures around the Mediterranean, helps you reap these benefits.

6. Olive Oil: Olive oil, perhaps the best-known staple of the Mediterranean diet, contains high quantities of monounsaturated fat. This good fat reduces cholesterol and inflammation: two factors associated with a healthy heart.

7: And Finally, Everyone’s Favorite — Red Wine: Conflicting evidence regarding red wine’s benefits to the heart has emerged in recent years. Some studies indicate a daily glass of red contains antioxidants that reduce inflammation enough to boost heart health. Others disagree. Either way, when it comes to wine — or any alcohol — moderation is key (the Mediterranean diet isn’t an excuse to go on a bender). Stick to a single five-ounce glass a day at most.

In addition to each of these food groups, there’s one other critical aspect of heart health not found on the Mediterranean plate, but around it: People in these traditional cultures tend to live in well-connected communities. For heart health, we would do well to do the same.

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(Photos via Getty)