The Mediterranean diet is not only a delicious way to eat, drink and live, but it is also a realistic and sustainable way to reduce disease-causing inflammation and maintain a healthy weight. In fact, U.S. News named the Mediterranean diet as the best overall diet among 41 different diets.
For thousands of years, people living along the Mediterranean coast have indulged in a diet high in fiber fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains, olive oil, fish and herbs. This healthy eating pattern has earned a reputation for disease prevention, mood enhancement, pleasant weight management, and more.
This article takes a closer look at what the Mediterranean diet is, what it has to offer, what foods to eat, how to follow it, etc.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods people used to eat in countries along the Mediterranean coast, including France, Spain, Greece and Italy.
Researchers note that these people are exceptionally healthy and have a low risk of many chronic diseases.
While there are no strict rules or regulations for this diet, it typically encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and heart-healthy fats. Processed foods, added sugars and refined grains should be limited.
Many studies have now shown that the Mediterranean diet can promote weight loss and help prevent heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes and premature death.
For this reason, the Mediterranean diet is often recommended for people who want to improve their health and prevent chronic disease.
Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
A traditional Mediterranean diet consisting of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil, combined with physical activity, can reduce your risk of developing serious mental and physical health problems by:
Promoting heart health
The Mediterranean diet has been extensively studied for its ability to promote heart health.
In fact, studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may even be associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
One study compared the effects of the Mediterranean diet with a low-fat diet and reported that the Mediterranean diet was more effective in slowing the progression of plaque buildup in the arteries, a major risk factor for heart disease.
Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may also help lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure levels to support heart health.
Helping With Weight Loss/Maintenance
Can I lose weight using the Mediterranean diet? While it depends on how much you eat, it can certainly help you manage your weight and reduce your calorie intake because of the inclusion of mostly nutrient-dense foods.
If you want to lose weight without being hungry and keep it off in a realistic way that can last a lifetime, this may be the right plan for you.
There is room for interpretation on the Mediterranean diet, whether you prefer to eat fewer carbohydrates, lower amounts of protein or something in between.
Fish, legumes, dairy products and grass-fed/free-range meats contain the protein and healthy fats your body needs. This helps you feel full.
This diet also helps control blood sugar levels and can improve your mood and energy levels.
Reducing the risk of Type 2 Diabetes Risk
New evidence suggests that this diet is protective for those who have or are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
First, the Mediterranean diet improved blood sugar control in those who already had diabetes, suggesting that it could be a good way to manage the disease, according to a review of studies.
What’s more, given that people with diabetes have an increased chance of developing cardiovascular disease, adopting this diet could help improve their heart health, according to the study.
Improving Mood and Fighting Depression
If you are motivated to eat more fruits and vegetables in a Mediterranean-style diet, you will not only feel better physically, but your mental health will be enhanced as well. Studies show that people who eat more raw fruits and vegetables (especially dark leafy greens like spinach, fresh berries and cucumbers) have fewer symptoms of depression, better moods and greater life satisfaction.
Other research published in July 2020 in Mental Health Clinical Practice and Epidemiology suggests that a Mediterranean style of eating can support mental health and may play a role in reducing symptoms of depression.
Protecting Brain Function
Some studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet may be beneficial for brain health and may even prevent cognitive decline as you age.
For example, a study that included 512 people found that greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with improved memory and reduced several risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies have found that the Mediterranean diet may be associated with a lower risk of dementia, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
More importantly, a large review also showed that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with improved cognitive function, memory, attention and processing speed in healthy older adults.
Helping Fight Cancer
According to an article published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. The biological mechanisms of cancer prevention associated with the Mediterranean diet are related to the balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids and the beneficial effects of the high amounts of fiber, antioxidants and polyphenols found in fruits, vegetables, olive oil and wine.
A plant-based diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, is the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which can help fight cancer in almost every way – providing antioxidants, protecting DNA from damage, stopping cell mutations, regulating hormone secretion and growth factors, reducing inflammation, and delaying tumor growth.
By reducing your risk of developing heart disease or cancer with the Mediterranean diet, you’re reducing your risk of death at any age by 20%.
What Foods to Eat and Avoid
Foods to eat
What are the main foods in the Mediterranean diet? In a nutshell, the foods promoted by the Mediterranean diet include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens like spinach and kale, and non-starchy vegetables like eggplant, cauliflower, artichokes, tomatoes, and fennel)
- olive oil
- nuts and seeds (like almonds and sesame seeds used to make tahini)
- legumes and beans (especially lentils and chickpeas used to make hummus)
- herbs and spices (like oregano, rosemary and parsley)
- whole grains
- wild-caught fish and seafood at least twice a week (which provide omega-3 fatty acids)
- Moderate consumption of high-quality pasture-raised poultry, eggs, cheese, goat’s milk and probiotic-rich kefir cheese or yogurt
- red meat consumed on special occasions or about once weekly
- plenty of fresh water and some coffee or tea
- oftentimes a daily glass of red wine
Foods to avoid
You should limit these processed foods and ingredients when following the Mediterranean diet:
- Added sugar: Added sugars are found in many foods, but are especially abundant in soda, candy, ice cream, table sugar, syrups, and baked goods.
- Refined grains: white bread, pasta, tortillas, chips, crackers
- Trans fats: found in margarine, fried foods, and other processed foods
- Refined oils: soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil
- Processed meat: processed sausages, hot dogs, deli meats, beef jerky
- Highly processed foods: fast food, convenience meals, microwave popcorn, granola bars
How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet?
Eliminate fast and processed foods. For many of us living in the United States, this is one of the more difficult adjustments and can take some time. Try swapping fast food for homemade. The point is, find a healthier homemade food alternative to your favorite fast food.
Eat more vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. The foundation of the Mediterranean diet pyramid should form the basis of every meal. Rely more on satisfying, flavorful salads to form a good part of your plate.
Swap fats. Rely on healthy fats. A good place to start is to swap your butter with good olive oil in your cooking.
Reduce your intake of fatty red meats…a lot. Eat more lean meat – fish twice a week; and poultry in moderation. You can certainly still eat the occasional red meat (very limited), but choose leaner meats. In Greece and other Mediterranean countries, lamb is usually the red meat of choice.
Eat some dairy and eggs. Consumption of dairy products (in moderation) has health benefits, including reduced risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Sadly, according to the USDA, over 80% of the entire U.S. population does not meet the recommended daily dairy intake! We’re not talking about topping everything off with tons of processed cheese. We’re not talking about topping everything with tons of processed cheese. But maybe as a snack, swap out your chips for low-fat Greek yogurt.
Do not drink your calories. On the Mediterranean diet, this means drinking more water and swapping high-calorie margaritas for the occasional red wine.
Share as many meals with others as possible. This helps in several ways. Spending time with loved ones can reduce stress and lift our mood. But being thoughtful and slowing down to engage with others also allows us to control our portion.
The Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating plan that includes foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, olive oil, and herbs. Dairy products and meat are usually consumed in moderation, as well as wine. Many studies have found that people who follow a Mediterranean-type diet can have several health benefits, such as a better heart, weight loss and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. One more thing, before you think about trying this diet, consult your health provider.