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The Key to the Mediterranean Diet
You've probably heard about the health benefits of omega-3s--the fatty acids found in salmon and other oily fish. Two omega-3s in particular, called EPA and DHA, are "good" polyunsaturated fats that help control inflammation and protect against heart disease. But there's a third omega-3 you might not be aware of, and you can't get it from eating fish. It turns out that this overlooked omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid, is a primary reason why eating a Mediterranean-style diet is a heart-healthy idea.

The Mediterranean Diet
People who live in Mediterranean regions of Italy, Greece, and Spain traditionally eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, fish, and olive oil. This diet gained wide recognition as a potential weapon against heart disease in 1994, when a study from Lyon, France, showed that it could decrease an individual's chance of having a second heart attack by 50 to 70%. This past March, the same researchers published a four-year follow-up report confirming the power of eating the Mediterranean way. The scientists compared people who preferred a Mediterranean-style diet with those who ate more conventional fare. Overall, the Mediterranean diet supplied less total fat (30% of calories versus 34%) and less saturated fat (8% of calories versus 12%) than the comparison diet. But those in the Mediterranean group also consumed twice as much alpha-linolenic acid as those on the standard diet, and higher blood levels of it were directly linked to a lower risk of heart attack. Like other omega-3s, alpha-linolenic acid helps prevent the heart-rhythm irregularities that can lead to heart attacks, and it also helps keep the arteries working properly.

The Right Foods
Only a few foods are rich in alpha-linolenic acid. In the Lyon study, participants ate a specially prepared canola-oil margarine high in this omega-3. (In the traditional Mediterranean diet, such foods as walnuts and a dark leafy green called purslane supply alpha-linolenic acid.) You can easily match the amount of alpha-linolenic acid the study participants consumed--1% of total calories, or 2 grams a day--by adding canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed, or walnuts to your diet. The following servings all supply about 2 grams of alpha-linolenic acid: 2 tbsp. canola or soybean oil; 1 tbsp. flaxseed; or 1 ounce walnuts (about 14 walnut halves). But don't go overboard: Some studies suggest that taking in very high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid leads to an increased risk of prostate cancer.

The Supplement Alternative
You can also get alpha-linolenic acid by taking flaxseed oil supplements, but it's an expensive way to do so. Four 1,000 mg capsules are needed to get 2 grams of alpha-linolenic acid. A better source may be bottled flaxseed oil (sold in health-food stores--keep it refrigerated), which can be used in place of other vegetable oils in salad dressings or to flavor foods. Many people enjoy the nutty taste of flaxseed oil. One tablespoon has 7.5 grams of alpha-linolenic acid. You can bake with flaxseed oil, but don't use it to fry or saute: It breaks down under very high heat.

Author: the WholeHealthMD Advisor
Date Published: 01/14/2000
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