Did you know that in the United States more than 600,000 people die of heart disease every year?

Heart disease kills more people in the Western world than any other disease, and a poor diet and lack of exercise are among the main reasons so many Americans fall victim to heart disease.

The best way to protect your heart and health is through lifestyle changes based on a Mediterranean diet. It is good prevention and also reduces the chances of being on medications.

Think about dinner last night. What did it look like? I know how mine went: it was a rush from one event after the next while eating on the run. We're doing life all wrong.

Now envision yourself somewhere on the Mediterranean coast. Maybe you see yourself in Greece, Italy, Spain, or even France -- the day you went to the farmers' market and purchased fresh vegetables picked that morning. You also grabbed some fish, olive oil, cheese and bread. Later that night, your family and friends sat around the table, talking while savoring the groceries you bought fresh. Dinner was not just a meal; it was an experience to be enjoyed with others.

When you think of the differences between the American and Mediterranean diets, it's no wonder that what has become known as the Mediterranean Diet is sweeping the nation. U.S. News & World Report ranks it number one for overall diets, and for good reason.

Research has shown it can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by nearly half. It has also shown to decrease the risk of stroke by 40%. These statistics are pretty staggering. They're especially interesting when you consider the Mediterranean diet tends to be higher in fat with its use of olive oil and fatty fish.

In addition to preventing cardiovascular disease and stroke, the diet has several other benefits, including protecting against diabetes, boosting brain health, and even helping with depression and anxiety.

What's even better than the antioxidant-filled, heart-disease-killing aspects of the Mediterranean Diet is that it's easy to stick with because it doesn't cut out any food groups. Rather, it's filled with a variety of foods in addition to using healthy fats that leave you satisfied, and not grumpy because of cravings.

So what does a Mediterranean diet consist of? It's pretty similar to the daydream you read about above.

The diet is largely made up of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and copious amounts of olive oil. The protein component is mainly fish, along with legumes, nuts and seeds, while red meats are limited. It consists of fresh, not packaged, foods that are free from additives.

It's not enough to change food habits, though; it includes a lifestyle change. You're encouraged to take time to savor your food and enjoy the company with which you're dining.

But is it realistic to switch to a Mediterranean diet? Is your only hope to pray for a rich uncle to kick the bucket and leave you millions of dollars so you can move to Greece, or can you really make the switch here, and now? Are we doomed to shop for bulk food items loaded with additives at warehouse clubs for the rest of our lives?

Thankfully, there is hope. Turns out making the switch to a Mediterranean diet isn't just easy -- it's also fun.

The diet encourages you to take time to laugh with friends over a bottle of wine as you slowly enjoy your meal together. Take long walks and go to the farmers' market as often as possible to load up on fresh foods. You may experience a learning curve when it comes to slowing down and enjoying life but trust me, you're worth it!

As a reminder, here are the basics to the diet:
• Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
• Beans and legumes
• Nuts
• Fresh seafood
• Whole grains
• Spices
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Wine in moderation (three ounces for women and five for men)
• Incorporate exercise as much as possible

The following is an example of what a daily meal menu might look like:
• Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blueberries and strawberries with avocado whole wheat toast
• Snack: Almonds
• Lunch: Variety of red, orange, yellow, peppers dipped in hummus. 1 slice prosciutto, 1 mozzarella stick, slice of bread, grapes and some dates
• Snack: Sun dried tomato and goat cheese on whole wheat crackers
• Dinner: Smoked Salmon salad with balsamic and olive oil dressing
• Dessert: Apples sprinkled with cinnamon

To help you with your good health journey, contact Ireland's dietitians: Angela Gerrity, RDN, LD and Laura Bottoms, RDN, LD by calling Central Appointments at 502-624-9333.