Cardiovascular prevention and the Mediterranean diet: the impact of diet on healthy life expectancy

Foundation, in collaboration with Dr. Martin Juneau, cardiologist and director of prevention at the Montreal Heart Institute

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“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” And what if this saying actually had some truth to it? Dr. Martin Juneau, cardiologist and director of prevention at the Montreal Heart Institute, explains the impact of good dietary practices on healthy life expectancy and cardiovascular disease.

Healthy life expectancy: quality of life as a priority

Life expectancy in Canada is very high, but what about the conditions we have lived in all these years? The findings of health researchers who have studied this question over the past few decades are quite enlightening, according to Dr. Martin Juneau.

“In North America, men will spend 10 years living with one or more health problems, compared to 12 years for women. Improving quality of life, rather than longevity, is what drives research these days.”

Studies carried out around the world have shown that a healthy life expectancy depends mainly on healthy lifestyle habits, with an emphasis on diet. Dietary risks, i.e., poor nutrition, are indeed the main causes of death in Canada and the United States, where they claim even more lives than smoking.

The Mediterranean diet: a proven dietary model

During the 1950s, the epidemiologist Ancel Keys laid the foundation for what would become the Mediterranean diet when he observed that wealthier Neapolitans, who had a diet richer in meat than that of the working classes, seemed to have more cardiovascular accidents. After observing the same phenomenon in Madrid, he conducted a study in seven countries during which he analyzed the impact of diet on life expectancy and cardiovascular health.

“He noticed during his research that the diet of Cretans and of Finns had the same percentage of fat, which was quite high (40%). However, the cardiac death rate was very high in Finland and very low in Crete. Why? Because the fats consumed by the Cretans were mainly of vegetable origin (olive oil, nuts, avocados), while those favoured by the Finns were of animal origin (cream, butter, cheeses, charcuterie).”

Choosing the right fats to prevent cardiovascular disease

Good fat: a question of quality and not of quantity

All fats are not alike: the type of fat we consume has more effect on our health than the quantity of fat we consume over time. Canada’s Food Guide provides valuable information on sources of healthy fats for cardiovascular health.

The Mediterranean diet pyramid: a heart-healthy food hierarchy

An important element of the Mediterranean diet is the priority given to certain foods. The Centre ÉPIC, an organization attached to the Montreal Heart Institute that promotes healthy lifestyle habits, illustrates the recommended nutritional intakes in its modified Mediterranean diet pyramid. At the base of the prism, we find foods to be consumed in large quantities, and at the top, those to be consumed sparingly.

Modified Mediterranean Diet

The direct effects of the Mediterranean diet on healthy life expectancy

“Only five years after adopting the Mediterranean diet, we observe a 35% reduction in cardiovascular risk,” a result which, according to Dr. Martin Juneau, is quite considerable. Reduced risk of breast cancer, improved memory and cognition, as well as a decline in coronary heart disease are also among the many benefits of this diet.

Vegetarian diet: benefits and misconceptions

Chronic diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular diseases: the list of health problems that plant-based diets can help alleviate is long. “There has long been the idea that plant-based proteins are not complete, that they can cause deficiencies… This is absolutely false. It’s the same thing with soy and tofu. The health risks for women associated with phytoestrogens in these foods are unclear. On the contrary, phytoestrogens even prevent the occurrence and recurrence of breast cancer.”

Regression of coronary heart disease and veganism: vegetables strike back

Researcher Dean Ornish, who has dedicated his career to studying the impact of lifestyle habits on the progression of coronary heart disease, has observed the dramatic effects of consuming plant-based foods on arterial obstruction. After 12 months of a vegan diet, combined with moderate physical activity and stress management, arterial blockages decrease and the disease regresses. The results are even better after five years.

The eating habits of Quebecers: nutritional challenges to be met

According to Dr. Juneau, Quebecers can easily modify their diet to get closer to the Mediterranean or vegetarian diet because their cooking habits are already similar. “We’re light years away from certain food cultures in the United States, where fish is eaten fried and served with French fries on the side. A filet of salmon with olive oil, served with a side salad, is often unimaginable over there.”

The challenges that Quebecers must meet mainly concern the daily intake of whole grains, nuts, and legumes.

“It is particularly difficult to get rid of the idea that legumes are only beans! There are many kinds and, on top of that, they’re a very affordable food choice.”

Faced with strong evidence of the importance of diet on healthy life expectancy, optimism is in order. Our very real power to act begins on our plate. As for the popular expression about apples and doctors, it should be reconsidered since this fruit is in fact of great interest to doctors!

Prevention in cardiovascular health is one of the central pillars of the Institute and its Foundation. By making a donation, you are joining a movement that allows Quebecers to live longer and healthier lives. Thank you for helping us fight against the world’s leading cause of death and for promoting healthy hearts.

Looking for more information? Explore Prevention Watch, a blog created by Dr. Martin Juneau and his collaborators.

visit the Prevention Watch's website

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