The Mediterranean diet is a heart-healthy diet that includes the food staples of people who live in the region around the Mediterranean Sea, such Greece, Croatia, and Italy.
The diet emphasizes foods with healthy fats — including those containing omega-3 fatty acids — plus other foods that support a heart-healthy diet.
“This diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts and legumes, and olive oil,” says Nancy L. Cohen, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Mediterranean diets also tend to be low in red meat, and include moderate amounts of yogurt and cheese as dairy products.
The diet also recommends red wine in moderation, that is, 5 ounces or less each day for women (about one glass of wine), and no more than 10 ounces daily for men (about two glasses).
Does the Mediterranean Diet Work?
Even so, research suggests that the Mediterranean diet is protective against heart disease and can improve the way your body handles blood sugar and insulin.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with many health benefits, yet researchers aren’t sure which components of the diet offer the most protection — or whether a combination of factors might be responsible for its benefits.
In addition to high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and other heart-healthy fats, fruits and vegetables also provide valuable antioxidants that may help protect the body against certain cancers.
A Sample Mediterranean Diet
Other than limiting red meats, processed meats, and some dairy, the Mediterranean diet offers a wide variety of meal options based on whole, fresh foods.
From cheese and veggie-laden pizzas to cooked veggies and rice dishes, you can plan quite a feast within the diet’s guidelines.
A single meal in a Mediterranean diet might feature:
- Mediterranean-style vegetable or bean soup, such as minestrone or lentil soup
- Whole-grain roll or flatbread
- Grilled or steamed seafood
- Cooked fresh vegetables
- Fresh salad with oil-and-vinegar dressing
- Fruit with yogurt for dessert
Advantages of the Mediterranean Diet
Positive aspects of a Mediterranean diet include:
You can stick with it. One of the most important elements of any successful diet is whether you can maintain it over the long haul.
The Mediterranean diet offers varied flavors and food options, and it covers all major food groups.
“It is an appealing diet that one can stay with for a lifetime,” Dr. Cohen says.
It’s low in saturated fat. While the Mediterranean diet isn’t low in fat, most of the fats in the diet are monounsaturated, or “good” fats.
These fats don’t raise cholesterol levels the same way saturated fats do. Healthful sources of fat include olive oil, fish oils, and nut-based oils, Cohen explains.
It’s heart-healthy. A growing number of studies suggest that people who follow a Mediterranean diet are less likely to die of heart disease than people who follow a typical American diet.
The Mediterranean Diet: Cons
As Cohen points out, there aren’t many reasons to be concerned about this diet over the long term.
Still, people on the diet should make sure to:
Keep up your calcium intake. The Mediterranean diet doesn’t include a lot of milk or dairy products, other than some cheese and yogurt.
As a result, people who follow it should pay attention to their calcium intake.
“To get enough calcium in the diet without milk, one would need to eat enough yogurt and cheese, or seek non-dairy calcium sources,” says Cohen.
There are some good vegetable sources of calcium, but if you really like milk, you can simply add skim milk to your diet.
Watch the wine. Red wine is part of the diet, but this doesn’t mean you can go overboard.
“Don’t drink more than one to two glasses per day, and recognize that some studies link alcohol consumption to breast cancer,” Cohen says.
The risk of other cancers, such as esophageal, oral, laryngeal, and liver cancers, are also increased by alcohol consumption.
Put a cap on fat. As with wine, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing when it comes to healthy fats.
The American Heart Association points out that while the Mediterranean diet meets heart-healthy diet limits for saturated fat, your total fat consumption could be greater than the daily recommended amount if you aren’t careful.
Brush up on cooking skills. This diet relies heavily on your ability to cook. Although it’s relatively easy to follow without advanced skills, some people may be on a learning curve as they work to improve their cooking abilities.
The Mediterranean Diet: Short- And Long-Term Effects
Studies have found that people who follow a Mediterranean diet are less likely to:
- Develop cancer, or die from it
- Die from heart disease
- Develop Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease
One major study, published in 2013 in The New England Journal of Medicine, followed 7,447 adults at high risk for heart disease.
After about five years, researchers found that the two groups assigned to a Mediterranean diet were about 70 percent less likely to experience stroke, heart attack, or death from heart disease than a group that had been given advice on a low-fat diet.
People in the two Mediterranean diet groups supplemented their diet with either extra-virgin olive oil or mixed nuts.
Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet also has beneficial effects on fasting blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity.
Of course, many people are interested in weight loss, in addition to simply following a healthy diet.
A review of several scientific studies comparing the Mediterranean diet to other diets — published in 2016 in The American Journal of Medicine — found that the Mediterranean diet led to about as much weight loss as other weight-loss diets, including low-fat and low-carb diets and the American Diabetes Association diet.
Overweight or obese people who followed a Mediterranean diet for 12 or more months were found to lose an average of 9 to 22 pounds. People who followed a Mediterranean diet lost more weight than those who followed a low-fat diet.
For better health, steady weight loss, and a tasty way of eating that won’t leave you wanting, the Mediterranean diet is a plan worth trying.
- G. A. Colditz (2016). “Healthy diet in adults.” UpToDate.
- R. Estruch et al. (2013). “Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet.” The New England Journal of Medicine.
- L. Schwingshacki and G. Hoffman (2014). “Adherence to Mediterranean diet and risk of cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies.” International Journal of Cancer.
- J. G. Mancini et al. (2016). “Systematic review of the Mediterranean diet for long-term weight loss.” The American Journal of Medicine.
- Mediterranean Diet; American Heart Association.
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