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Jul 26, 2021
4 min read

What is the Mediterranean diet: how it can help you be healthier

The Mediterranean diet is recommended by experts as one of the healthiest dietary patterns in the world. It’s based on traditional dishes eaten in Greece, Spain, Italy, and nearby countries. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh fruit, veggies, healthy fats, and lean protein and discourages red meat, added sugar, and processed foods. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet might improve heart health and help with weight loss.

Reviewed by Chimene Richa, MD

Written by Michael Martin

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you’re remotely interested in food, there’s a solid chance you’ve heard someone extol the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Not only has it been touted to help you lose weight, but it may also decrease your risk of diabetes and heart disease, among other benefits. But what is the Mediterranean diet and what does it entail?

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on traditional foods eaten by people living in the regions near the Mediterranean Sea, particularly Italy and Greece. In the 1960s, researchers noticed fewer people in these countries were developing heart disease and cancer, and they were living longer overall than people in Western countries.

The traditional Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts. It emphasizes monounsaturated fats like olive oil. Poultry and fatty fish like salmon are typical main courses. A moderate amount of red wine is allowed, while the consumption of red meat, added sugar, and processed foods are discouraged (Rishor-Olney, 2021).

Some typical Mediterranean diet dishes include fixtures of Greek, Spanish and Italian cuisine, such as white beans with spinach, Greek salad (which typically includes feta cheese, tomatoes, olives, and green peppers), and paella (a seafood dish containing shrimp, lobster, and clams) (Tuttolomondo, 2019). 

Foods to eat on the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet encourages people to adopt a healthy diet. Examples of foods that you should eat on the Mediterranean meal plan include (Rishor-Olney, 2021): 

  • High fiber fruits and vegetables like leafy greens and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, peas, green beans, etc.)
  • Lean meats, like poultry and fish (especially salmon and sardines, which are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Whole grains like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats, quinoa
  • Healthy fats like nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, avocados
  • Red wine in moderation—it contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that may be beneficial to heart health
  • Low-fat dairy products like low-fat milk, greek yogurt, cheese (Wade, 2018)

The Mediterranean diet limits dairy products (such as milk and cheese) and red meat, and processed foods and added sugars are discouraged altogether.

Foods to avoid on the Mediterranean diet

As part of a heart-healthy diet plan, the Mediterranean meal plan recommends avoiding fatty foods and those with high amounts of sugar.

Examples of foods to avoid (or eat in small amounts) on the Meditteranean diet include (MedLinePlus, 2020):

  • Foods high in saturated fats like red meats, eggs, butter, full-fat dairy products
  • Sugary foods like soft drinks, sweets, and other desserts

Benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet may promote weight loss because it encourages lots of fruits and veggies and discourages processed foods and added sugars. If you’ve been eating many sweets and processed foods, switching to the Mediterranean might create a calorie deficit, which is the key to weight loss. Also, protein and whole grains keep you fuller for longer, helping you decrease your caloric intake and promoting weight loss. Adding exercise increases your likelihood of losing weight. 

In addition to weight loss, research shows that the Mediterranean diet may have other health benefits. 

Studies show that the Mediterranean diet may also reduce the risk of heart disease. According to a recent literature review, the Mediterranean diet is associated with reducing several risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, blood lipids (like cholesterol and triglycerides), blood pressure, inflammatory markers, and diabetes (Tuttolomondo, 2019). 

Another clinical trial found that this diet may improve sleep quality. Researchers found that people who reported eating a Mediterranean-style diet had fewer insomnia symptoms than those who followed other eating patterns (Castro-Diehl, 2018).

The Mediterranean diet may also play a protective role in cancer prevention (Mazzocchi, 2019).

Risks of the Mediterranean diet

One of the risks of the Mediterranean diet is not sticking with the program. It may be difficult for some people to adhere to the Mediterranean diet plan exclusively. As with any eating plan, the Mediterranean diet works best if you use it regularly and consistently. 

Another risk is not being able to regulate how much you eat. While you are allowed to have nuts, olive oil, and red wine on this diet, too much can still lead to weight gain. 

If you have low calcium or low iron, your healthcare provider may recommend eating more iron-rich foods or dairy products than is typically recommended on the Mediterranean diet (MedLinePlus, 2020). 

Lastly, some versions of the Mediterranean diet recommend a glass of red wine daily. As you can imagine, certain people, like those who have liver disease or who may be pregnant, should not follow this guideline (Rishor-Olney, 2021).

Unlike many restrictive diets and regimented food lists, the Mediterranean diet can be a very flexible eating plan that can accommodate most dietary restrictions with some slight tweaks. It adapts well to vegan or vegetarian eating plans and can be a good option for people with heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

Overall, the Mediterranean diet is highly recommended by healthcare providers and is thought of as more of a lifestyle change than a diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that the Mediterranean diet is an example of a healthy eating pattern that can prevent heart disease and stroke.

However, before starting any diet plan, talk to your healthcare provider about your medical history and nutritional needs. 

References

  1. Agnoli, C., Sieri, S., Ricceri, F., Giraudo, M. T., Masala, G., Assedi, M., et al. (2018). Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and long-term changes in weight and waist circumference in the EPIC-Italy cohort. Nutrition & Diabetes, 8(1), 22. doi: 10.1038/s41387-018-0023-3. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29695712/
  2. Castro-Diehl, C., Wood, A. C., Redline, S., Reid, M., Johnson, D. A., Maras, J. E., et al. (2018). Mediterranean diet pattern and sleep duration and insomnia symptoms in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Sleep, 41(11), zsy158. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsy158. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30137563/
  3. Mazzocchi, A., Leone, L., Agostoni, C., & Pali-Schöll, I. (2019). The secrets of the Mediterranean diet: does [only] olive oil matter?. Nutrients, 11(12), 2941. doi: 10.3390/nu11122941. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31817038/
  4. MedLinePlus (2020, Jul). Mediterranean Diet. Retrieved on Jul 19, 2021 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000110.htm
  5. Rishor-Olney CR, Hinson MR. (2021) Mediterranean diet. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557733/
  6. Tuttolomondo, A., Simonetta, I., Daidone, M., Mogavero, A., Ortello, A., & Pinto, A. (2019). Metabolic and vascular effect of the mediterranean diet. International Journal Of Molecular Sciences, 20(19), 4716. doi: 10.3390/ijms20194716. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31547615/
  7. Wade, A. T., Davis, C. R., Dyer, K. A., Hodgson, J. M., Woodman, R. J., & Murphy, K. J. (2018). A Mediterranean diet supplemented with dairy foods improves markers of cardiovascular risk: results from the MedDairy randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108(6), 1166–1182. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy207. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30351388