From Dukan and Atkins to 5:2 and Paleo, it can often feel as though there’s a new diet on the up every week. But there’s one diet that comes up time and time again when people talk about cholesterol: The Mediterranean diet.
So what is a Mediterranean diet, and can it really help if you’re trying to lower your cholesterol? Let’s take a look.
What does a Mediterranean diet consist of?
In countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy, Greece or France, local cuisines feature certain star ingredients as part of a balanced diet. Each country and region has its own take, but in almost all of them, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, wholegrains, and foods high in good unsaturated fats (like olive oil) are all regularly used to create classic flavoursome dishes.
Adapting a Mediterranean diet for high cholesterol
So can you use the Mediterranean diet to lower cholesterol? Scientists currently advise that those with elevated cholesterol levels should follow a diet that replaces saturated fat with unsaturated fat*, and that is balanced and healthy overall.
Focusing on certain ingredients and cooking methods in the Mediterranean diet may help those looking to lower their cholesterol take positive steps in this direction – not forgetting the other key steps, of course.
Smart tips from the Mediterranean diet
• Reach for olive oil instead of butter when cooking, and use a vegetable oil based soft spread on bread. Extra virgin olive oil can also be lightly drizzled over salads or pasta dishes for flavour.
• Think about how you cook your food. Steaming and grilling are healthier alternatives to fried food and will help you savour those delicate Mediterranean flavours.
• One or two days a week, replace meat with fish – ideally once with oily fish, and once with another kind. Fish is a source of leaner protein, and oily fish contains plenty of good fats.
• Season food with fresh herbs or citrus juice instead of adding extra sugar or salt to a dish. To make this crab linguine, use the juice of half a lemon, garlic and fresh parsley for a light but filling pasta dinner.
• Swap baked desserts for fresh fruit, such as oranges or fresh figs.
The drawbacks of a Mediterranean diet explained
While some features of a Mediterranean diet are beneficial, others should be enjoyed in moderation.
For example, some Mediterranean food has high levels of salt and should be avoided in excess. Food that has a high fat content, although they are the good fats, such as olive oil or avocado, should also be enjoyed in amounts proportional to a well-balanced diet.
Some regions also put an emphasis on cheese in their dishes, from Italian mozzarella to Greek feta, and these are high in saturated fat. It’s often possible to find a reduced fat version of a cheese to use instead – if not, there are plenty of alternatives to explore. The trick here is to consider the taste, and think of an alternative that offers that same benefit.
Tofu is a good swap for mozzarella, with a similar silken texture and mild taste. For feta, you could marinade tofu with lemon and (believe it or not) soy for a similar bright flavour. Capers, olives, marinated artichokes, and sundried tomatoes also all offer a tangy taste that works well in the Mediterranean dishes that would usually use feta.
Considering a Mediterranean diet to lower cholesterol
When used to replace saturated fats, the unsaturated fats in Mediterranean favourites such as olive oil and oily fish make them a good addition to a cholesterol lowering diet. Above all, trying new meals and flavours can be a fun way to vary a balanced diet, making sticking to healthier lifestyle choices more enjoyable.
* Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease. There are many risk factors for coronary heart disease and it is important to take care of all of them to reduce the overall risk of it.