9 Best Mediterranean Diet Foods for Heart Health
Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, protein-rich legumes, fish and whole grains with moderate amounts of wine and red meat. The flavors are rich, and the health benefits for people choosing a Mediterranean diet, one of the world's healthiest, are hard to ignore—they are less likely to develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol or become obese. Try these nine Mediterranean diet foods.
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1. Broccoli Rabe
Pictured Recipe: Broccoli Rabe with Olives & Garlic
Also known as rapini, broccoli rabe is a dark leafy green vegetable that offers the earthy bitter brassica flavor that pairs beautifully with bold ingredients like sausage, anchovy and hot pepper. Like other cabbage family members, it's a nutrition superstar, providing plenty of vitamin C, potassium, calcium and fiber as well as carotenoids and cancer-fighting indoles and isothiocyanates.
Pictured Recipe: Mediterranean Chickpea Quinoa Bowl
When combined with grains and starches, chickpeas provide high-quality protein, folate, calcium, iron and zinc. They also offer benefits like healthy, filling doses of fiber (both soluble and insoluble), phytates and phytosterols. Studies suggest beans may help manage diabetes, prevent colon cancer and reduce heart disease risk.
Pictured Recipe: One-Skillet Salmon with Fennel & Sun-Dried Tomato Couscous
Traditionally unrefined grains (pasta, bread, barley, couscous) are the base of most Mediterranean diets. Whole grains have a lower glycemic index, meaning they are digested more slowly and produce gentler rises in glucose and insulin than the refined versions. Whole grains also retain all their fiber, magnesium, vitamin E and other antioxidant phytochemicals. Diets rich in whole grains may protect against heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Pictured Recipe: Hasselback Eggplant Parmesan
Beloved for its toothsome texture and neutral flavor that takes up sauces beautifully, eggplant gives meaty satisfaction to a cuisine in which meat traditionally made rare appearances. While not a nutritional powerhouse, eggplant contains some fiber and potassium. Chlorogenic acid, a compound concentrated in eggplant skin, may have antiviral and cancer-fighting properties.
Pictured Recipe: Charred Green Beans with Mustard Vinaigrette & Hazelnuts
Nut trees are almost as common as olive trees in Italy. Nuts are savored as snacks, ground into sauces and sprinkled on salads. They're loaded with heart-friendly monounsaturated fat. They're also rich sources of protein, fiber, vitamin E, folate, calcium and magnesium. Nut protein is also high in arginine, an amino acid that helps maintain healthy blood vessels.
6. Olive Oil
Pictured Recipe: Olive Oil-Braised Summer Squash
Prized since antiquity (original Olympic winners were awarded jugs of it), olive oil is imperative in Mediterranean cooking, especially for preparing vegetables. Rich in monounsaturated fat and (in extra-virgin types) antioxidant polyphenols; many believe its wide use throughout the Mediterranean explains much of that region's low heart disease rates.
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Pictured Recipe: Chicken Sausage and Peppers
Fresh, roasted or dried and ground into complex sauces and pastes, peppers add color to Mediterranean dishes. And good nutrition: all types are rich in vitamins A and C, fiber, folate, beta carotene and vitamin K. Red peppers also deliver lycopene—as well as lutein and zeaxanthin—which can protect against macular degeneration.
Pictured Recipe: Lemon-Garlic Shrimp over Orzo with Zucchini
Wherever those in the Mediterranean live close to the sea, seafood is a staple protein in their diets. Shellfish and fish of all kinds are celebrated, often several in the same dish. While fattier types like tuna supply heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, lean specimens like shrimp, squid and sea bass provide ample protein, niacin and selenium.
Pictured Recipe: One-Pan Chicken Parmesan Pasta
It's hard to believe these now-ubiquitous orbs weren't native to the Mediterranean region; they're staples in every cook's larder, fresh, canned and in paste form. Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C and lycopene, a heart-protective antioxidant that may help prevent some cancers (particularly prostate). Plus, they're versatile enough to enjoy every day.