5 Healthy Eating Habits to Steal From Europeans

Cutting your risk of heart disease and stroke is simpler than you think. (Photo by Kang Kim/Offset)

They sometimes do things we Americans find weird (like wearing tiny Speedos to the beach), but when it comes to healthy eating, Europeans — specifically those from Spain, France, Italy and Greece — could teach us a thing or two. 

Their diets, referred to in nutrition circles as the Mediterranean Diet, consists of lots of olive oil, nuts, red wine, and lean protein. It has been widely touted as a top defense against chronic diseases and a sure-fire way to drop pounds. It’s also the most effective diet to protect against heart disease.

"This diet is about keeping you healthy and fighting disease," said Holly Andersen, M.D., attending cardiologist and director of Education and Outreach at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York Presbyterian Hospital. 

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A landmark study published last April revealed that a Mediterranean diet led to greater cardiovascular health. The Spanish research team tracked more than 7,400 participants for nearly five years. These volunteers, a mix of men and women between the ages of 55 to 80, did not have cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study, but were at a high risk for developing it (i.e. they had Type 2 diabetes, were smokers or had a family history of heart disease).

Two-thirds of the volunteers were told to follow a Mediterranean diet; the other third was instructed to eat a control diet. Half of the Mediterranean diet group had to use four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day; the second half of the Mediterranean group were given an ounce of mixed nuts (walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts) each day.

The researchers ended their study earlier than expected because the results were so pronounced it would have been unethical to continue: Those consuming a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or nuts saw a 30 percent reduction in their risk of heart disease. 

Andersen told Yahoo Health that this study reiterates the notion that what you eat truly determines how healthy you are. “These volunteers did not lose weight or change their exercise habits,” she noted. “It’s not about what you weigh but what foods you eat that will help you fight disease.”

Adjusting your diet to incorporate Mediterranean eating habits isn’t hard. Anderson recommends incorporating these five foods into your diet for better health and weight loss — the Speedo, that’s your choice: 

1. Nuts. “Mix unsalted pecans, almonds, cashews and walnuts together and eat as a snack,” she said. “These nuts increase good cholesterol.”

2. Dark chocolate. “Dark chocolate is associated with longevity,” she said. But stick to a chocolate bar that contains at least 70% cocoa.

3. Small fish. The big fish in the sea — tuna, halibut and swordfish — contain high levels of mercury. Healthier options are wild salmon, snapper, sardines, and anchovies because they’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

4. Colorful veggies. Spice up your salad with red and green bell peppers, tomatoes and other colorful veggies and don’t forget to sprinkle some blueberries on your oatmeal or yogurt, said Andersen. Eating a wide assortment of fruits and vegetables guarantees you’ll be getting key vitamins and minerals.

5. Extra virgin olive oil. “Not all fat is created equal,” noted Andersen. Fat is essential for energy and keeping your skin and hair healthy. Extra virgin olive oil is perfect for dipping bread, providing taste and texture to salads and scrambling eggs.