The Mediterranean diet is named for the southern European region near the Mediterranean Sea, around southern Italy, Greece, Turkey and Spain, where this pattern of eating is part of the traditional culture. It consists of lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, pasta, whole grains, olive and canola oil, nuts, seafood, and a little red wine.
Considered by many nutrition experts to be one of the most heart-healthy ways of eating, the base of the Mediterranean diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory foods and built upon plant-based foods and healthy fats.
Based on much research, this particular diet can protect against the development of heart disease, metabolic complications, depression, cancer, type-2 diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in healthy fats from olive oil and nuts provides better protection against heart attack and stroke than a low-fat diet.
How Does the Mediterranean Diet Work?
Rather than restricting the broad categories, “fats” or “carbohydrates,” the Mediterranean diet stresses healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates and avoids unhealthy fats and carbohydrates. The healthy fats — monounsaturated fats — come from olive and canola oils, nuts, and fish. The healthy carbohydrates come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. This combination of foods is rich in antioxidants, and in omega-3 fatty acids.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, together with regular physical activity and not smoking, over 80 percent of coronary heart disease, 70 percent of stroke, and 90 percent of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet.
Studies have also shown that people on the Mediterranean diet have improved blood glucose levels, improved blood pressures, improved cholesterol values, and a reduced risk of developing metabolic syndrome when compared to people on poor diets, or even on low-fat diets.
What Foods Are Included in the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean way of eating promotes foods including:
- fresh fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens like spinach and kale and non-starchy veggies 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
- eating wild-caught fish and seafood at least twice a week
- high quality pasture-raised poultry, eggs, cheese, goat milk, and probiotic-rich kefir or yogurt consumed in moderation
- 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
Major Tips for the Mediterranean Diet:
- Avoid red meat. Use fish (preferable) or chicken instead, along with legumes, as a protein source.
- Eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables, fresh whenever possible.
- Cook only with olive oil or canola oil.
- Eat whole grain breads and pasta
- Eat a handful of nuts daily — walnuts, almonds, pecans, and Brazil nuts have actual clinical data to back up their health benefits.
- Avoid baked goods.
- Avoid butter and products containing trans fats.
- Limit (or better, eliminate) fat-containing dairy products.
- A glass of red wine (but no more than one glass per day) can also be beneficial to heart health. You should probably check with your doctor about this one.
Her are the 6 major benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
1. Improves Heart Health
Research shows that greater adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet, including plenty of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 foods, is associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality, especially heart disease. A striking protective effect of a Mediterranean diet rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from olive oil has been shown in many studies, with some finding that a Mediterranean-style diet can decrease the risk of cardiac death by 30 percent and sudden cardiac death by 45 percent.
Olive oil is also beneficial for lowering hypertension because it makes nitric oxide more bioavailable, which makes it better able to keep arteries dilated and clear. Another protective element is that it helps combat the disease-promoting effects of oxidation and improves endothelial function. People in the Mediterranean don’t usually struggle to maintain healthy cholesterol levels since they obtain plenty of healthy fats.
2. Helps Lose Weight in a Healthy Way
The traditional Mediterranean diet has been undertaken by many people all around the world with great success related to weight loss and more, as it works to help manage weight and reduce fat intake naturally and easily due to eating many nutrient-dense foods.
The diet focuses on consumption of healthy fats while keeping carbohydrates relatively low and improving a person’s intake of high-quality protein foods. Fish, dairy products and grass-fed/free-range meats contain healthy fatty acids that the body needs, working to help you feel full, manage weight gain, control blood sugar, and improve your mood and energy levels.
3. Helps Fight Cancer
According to the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, the biological mechanisms for cancer prevention associated with the Mediterranean diet have been related to the favorable effect of a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids and high amounts of fiber, antioxidants and polyphenols found in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and wine.
Plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which fight cancer in nearly every way — providing antioxidants, protecting DNA from damage, stopping cell mutation, lowering inflammation and delaying tumor growth. Many studies point to the fact that olive oil might also be a natural cancer treatment and decrease the risk of colon and bowel cancers. It might have a protective effect on the development of cancer cells due to lowered inflammation and reduced oxidative stress, plus its tendency to promote balanced blood sugar and a healthier weight.
4. Prevents or Treats Diabetes
Evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet serves as an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern, which could help fight diseases related to chronic inflammation, including metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. One reason the Mediterranean diet might be so beneficial for preventing diabetes is because it controls excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, makes us gain weight and keeps the weight packed on despite us dieting.
By regulating blood sugar levels with a balance of whole foods — containing healthy fatty acids, quality sources of protein and some carbohydrates that are low in sugar — the body burns fat more efficiently and has more energy too. A low-sugar diet with plenty of fresh produce and fats is part of a natural diabetic diet plan.
According to the American Heart Association, the Mediterranean diet is higher in fat than the standard American diet, yet lower in saturated fat. It’s usually roughly a ratio of 40 percent complex carbohydrates, 30 percent to 40 percent healthy fats and 20 percent to 30 percent quality protein foods. Because this balance is somewhat ideal in terms of keeping weight gain and hunger under control, it’s a good way for the body to remain in hormonal homeostasis, so someone’s insulin levels are normalized. As a byproduct, it also means someone’s mood is more likely to stay positive and relaxed, energy levels up, and physical activity easier.
The Mediterranean diet is low in sugar, since the only sugar present usually comes from fruit, wine and the occasional locally made dessert. When it comes to drinks, many people drink plenty of fresh water, some coffee and red wine, too. But soda and sweetened drinks aren’t nearly as popular as they are in the U.S.
While some Mediterranean diets do include a good deal of carbohydrates — in the form of pasta or bread, for example — being active and otherwise consuming very low levels of sugar means that insulin resistance remains rare in these countries. The Mediterranean style of eating helps prevent peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels, which zaps energy and takes a toll on your mood. All of these various factors contribute to this diet’s diabetes prevention capabilities.
Most people in the Mediterranean eat a balanced breakfast within one to two hours of waking up, which starts their day right by balancing blood sugar when it’s at its lowest. They then typically eat three meals a day that are filling, with plenty of fiber and healthy fats. Many people choose to have their biggest meal mid-day as opposed to at night, which gives them the opportunity to use that food for energy while they’re still active.
You can see how this differs from the standard American diet, which often results in many people skipping breakfast, snacking throughout the day on energy-zapping foods high in carbs and sugar, and eating a lot at nighttime while they’re sedentary.
5. Protects Cognitive Health and Helps You Relax
Eating the Mediterranean way might be a natural Parkinson’s disease treatment, a great way to preserve your memory, and a step in the right direction for naturally treating Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Cognitive disorders can occur when the brain isn’t getting a sufficient amount of dopamine, an important chemical necessary for proper body movements, mood regulation and thought processing.
Healthy fats like olive oil and nuts, plus plenty of anti-inflammatory veggies and fruits, are known to fight age-related cognitive decline. These help counter the harmful effects of exposure to toxicity, free radicals, inflammation-causing poor diets or food allergies, which can all contribute to impaired brain function. This is one reason why adherence to the Mediterranean diet is linked with lower rates of Alzheimer’s.
Probiotic foods like yogurt and kefir also help build a healthy gut, which we now know is tied to cognitive function, memory and mood disorders.
6. Might Help You Live Longer!
A diet high in fresh plant foods and healthy fats seems to be the winning combination for longevity. Monounsaturated fat, the type found in olive oil and some nuts, is the main fat source in the Mediterranean diet. Over and over, studies show that monounsaturated fat is associated with lower levels of heart disease, cancer, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory diseases and more. These are currently the leading causes of death in developed nations — especially heart disease.
In the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study, people who had heart attacks between 1988 and 1992 were either counseled to follow the standard post-heart attack diet advice, which reduces saturated fat greatly, or told to follow a Mediterranean style. After about four years, follow-up results showed that people on the Mediterranean diet experienced 70 percent less heart disease — which is about three times the reduction in risk achieved by most cholesterol-lowering prescription station drugs! The people on the Mediterranean diet also amazingly experienced a 45 percent lower risk of all-cause death than the group on the standard low-fat diet.
These results were true even though there wasn’t much of a change in cholesterol levels, which tells you that heart disease is about more than just cholesterol. The results of the Lyon Study were so impressive and groundbreaking that the study had to be stopped early for ethical reasons, so all participants could follow the higher-fat Mediterranean-style diet and reap its longevity-promoting payoffs.