Take Care Of Your Ticker With The Right Food

By Joseph Arcuri

Originally published on Advocate.com March 16 2013 7:12 AM ET

Heart disease is the #1 cause of preventable death in America and it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight. 

Almost 30% of heart attacks are fatal, the vast majority of these deaths occurring in people who’ve never even had a heart attack. Many researchers have focused on identifying treatable risk factors for heart disease like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Further studies have demonstrated the benefit of medications that best manage these risks. Other studies prove a clearly harmful link between cigarettes and heart disease, so stop smoking cigarettes! Why? Because the best way to avoid dying from heart disease is to never get it.

Most of us know that a healthy diet and regular exercise helps prevent heart disease by reducing the likelihood you’ll ever have one of those risk factors and can even reduce or eliminate the need for medications. We spend more than $2.5 billion (more than 10% from us LGBT folks!) every year on gym memberships to help sculpt a sexy body. But it doesn’t matter that you look like a Greek God or Goddess on the outside if you don’t take care of the inside.

But what’s a “healthy diet”? Because dietary advice is generally vague and inconsistent, we turn to popular diets like Atkins. Many of these diets show immediate results that are often difficult to sustain and worse, have no proven cardiovascular health benefits.

Prior studies that looked at the effects of the “Mediterranean diet” on heart disease have showed promise but a new study reported in the most recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine converts that promise to reality.

Researchers, using rigorous scientific methods, designed this study to compare the effects of the Mediterranean diet supplemented by either olive oil or mixed nuts to a standard low fat diet in people without existing heart disease. More than 7,400 men and women from across the entire country of Spain were randomly assigned to one of these three diets. The heart disease risks among all of the participants before the study were the same. During nearly 5 years of regular follow-up visits, the researchers used medical surveys and blood tests to prove that everyone adhered to their diets and did not modify any other cardiovascular risk factors or increase exercise.  

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes 3 or more servings/week each of legumes (like lentils or chickpeas), lean white meats and fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids, 2-3 servings/day each of fresh fruits and vegetables and a glass of wine every day. It discourages dairy, red meats and processed carbohydrates. And FYI—no restriction on calories! The study further supplemented this traditional diet with either:

    • OLIVE OIL – more than 4 Tbsp/day, including that used for cooking  
    • MIXED NUTS – 2 Tbsp of walnuts and 1 Tbsp each of almonds and hazelnuts/day.

Long story short: researchers stopped the study early because they observed a roughly 30% reduction in heart attack, stroke and death from cardiovascular disease in the study groups compared to the low fat diet control group due solely to the effects of these diets.

Now, no study is perfect. And I encourage everyone to tailor a diet to his or her specific needs with advice from your healthcare professional. But we finally have a legitimate framework and it beats the price of a Villa in Tuscany…or does it?

Here are a couple of Mediterranean-inspired recipes to get you started:

- Lemon Pepper Salmon

- Spanish Cod

- Flounder Mediterranean

- Roasted Eggplant with Feta Dip

- Chopped Greek Salad with Chicken 


JOSEPH J. ARCURI Jr., MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University