If there’s one diet that’s widely acclaimed for its health benefits, it’s the Mediterranean diet. Including plenty of vegetables, fruit, legumes, cereal, fish, and unsaturated fats like olive oil, this diet is designed to mimic the traditional eating habits of people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean sea.
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to reduced inflammation, improved brain function, and a lowered risk of developing chronic health conditions like heart disease. But what can it really do for your wellbeing, and how easy is it to follow?
Here, we’ll explore what the Mediterranean diet is, how to follow it, and what health benefits it can bring.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a style of eating based on the traditional diets of Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece. The concept spread after researchers found that people in these countries had lower rates of chronic disease, compared with those in Northern Europe and America. They attributed these findings to varied dietary patterns.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t based upon a particular calorie intake, and is really more of a lifestyle habit than other popular diets. Instead of tracking calories, the Mediterranean diet is focused on eating certain food groups in moderation.
What does following the Mediterranean diet involve?
The Mediterranean diet is mostly focused on consuming nutrient-rich, whole foods. This includes fruit and vegetables like berries, broccoli, and asparagus, whole grains like quinoa and couscous, nuts and seeds like almonds and walnuts, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocados.
While the Mediterranean diet is primarily centered on plant foods, other ingredients including eggs, dairy, and poultry can also be enjoyed in moderation.
Water should be your go-to drink on a Mediterranean diet. However, certain types of alcohol – such as red wine – can also be included in moderation, though limiting this to no more than one or two servings a day for men and women respectively, is recommended. Coffee and tea are also healthy drink choices on the Mediterranean diet – just be mindful about adding sugar or cream.
Food and drinks to avoid, on the other hand, include processed meats like bacon and salami; refined grains like white pasta and white bread; processed foods like chips, microwave popcorn, and pretzels; refined oils like vegetable oil and canola oil; and sugar-sweetened beverages like soda or sweet tea.
Below is a sample Mediterranean diet meal plan.
Breakfast: Greek yoghurt with raspberries and chia seeds.
Lunch: Whole grain sandwich with hummus and vegetables.
Snack: Apple slices with almond butter.
Dinner: Tuna salad with plenty of greens and olive oil.
Dessert: Fruit salad.
You can find an extensive list of foods to eat and avoid on the Mediterranean diet on the Eating Well website.
Alongside the Mediterranean diet, people are encouraged to lead an active lifestyle. If you’d like to introduce more exercise into your daily routine, you’ll find plenty of inspiration on the fitness and exercise section of our website.
What are some health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
1. The Mediterranean diet may help lower your risk of heart disease
Multiple studies have found that the Mediterranean diet can boost heart health.
For example, in this study, those who followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil or nuts for three months experienced significant improvements in systolic blood pressure and cholesterol levels – both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
In addition, metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that can increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. However, this study found that following the Mediterranean diet and eating 30g of mixed nuts daily for one year reduced the prevalence of metabolic syndrome by almost 14%.
2. The Mediterranean diet can reduce inflammation
Acute inflammation is a normal and healthy process that helps the immune system protect against infection and illness. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can lead to disease and is thought to be involved in the development of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
However, research has suggested that the Mediterranean diet may help to reduce levels of inflammation and prevent illness. For instance, this study found that strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced levels of several markers of inflammation.
Another study of older adults, found that following the Mediterranean diet for three to five years also decreased inflammation markers.
This is largely because many anti-inflammatory foods form a significant part of the Mediterranean diet.
3. The Mediterranean diet may help to prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease
Research has drawn a link between the Mediterranean diet and slowed cognitive decline in older adults.
For instance, this study reported that people who followed the Mediterranean diet had better memory, larger volumes of the brain regions associated with memory function, and lower levels of biological markers of Alzhimer’s disease.
In addition, research has also suggested that strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet can not only reduce the risk of developing Alzhiemer’s disease, but also that of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is the transitional stage that begins when normal age-related cognitive decline develops into more serious memory-loss associated with dementia.
It’s currently unclear which specific aspects of the Mediterranean diet might protect brain function. Some experts believe that it’s down to the overall improvement in cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and blood vessel health. Other theories suggest that following the Mediterranean diet may help to prevent loss of brain tissue associated with Alzheimer’s.
4. The Mediterranean diet may help with weight loss and maintenance
The Mediterranean diet encourages limiting your intake of processed foods and added sugars, which are often high in calories, and focusing on nutrient-rich, whole foods instead. Therefore, following the diet alongside a healthy active lifestyle could help you to maintain a healthy weight.
For example, this scientific review found that the Mediterranean diet was as effective for weight loss as other popular diets like the low carb diet, which is based on calorie tracking and food group restriction. It resulted in up to 22 pounds (10kg) of weight loss over the course of one year.
In addition, this large-scale study of over 32,000 people found that long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet was linked with a decreased risk of gaining weight – and in particular belly fat – over a five year period.
5. The Mediterranean diet can help people manage type 2 diabetes
Various research has suggested that the Mediterranean diet could help protect against type 2 diabetes.
For example, this study of 418 people revealed that those following a Mediterranean diet were 52% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes over a four year period, compared with those who didn’t.
Another study of over 900 people revealed that long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet was linked to lower levels of blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C – a marker of long-term blood sugar control.
Other research has suggested that the Mediterranean diet could also help improve the body’s ability to use insulin – a hormone that regulates blood sugar.
6. The Mediterranean diet may benefit people with rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory type of arthritis, so avoiding foods known to worsen inflammation may help the condition. There’s evidence to suggest that bacteria in your gut also plays a role in the development and progression of RA, so it’s worth evaluating your diet.
The Mediterranean diet is highly recommended when it comes to fighting RA inflammation, mainly because it integrates so many RA friendly foods – including fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans, lean proteins, and sources of omega-3 fatty acids like fish – into one meal plan.
This study found that the Mediterranean diet can reduce pain and improve physical function in people living with RA. Generally, it’s the unsaturated fats and antioxidants found in so many of the foods included in the diet that are thought to be most beneficial.
7. The Mediterranean diet may have cancer fighting properties
Due to its provision of various foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, the Mediterranean diet has been labelled by experts as a powerful and manageable method that could help to fight the development of cancer.
For example, this study saw a 17% and 12% reduction in cancer mortality in men and women who followed the Mediterranean diet for up to five years.
This is largely due to the fact that the majority – if not all – of the foods thought to decrease the risk of cancer form part of the Mediterranean diet.
8. The Mediterranean diet may help to ease symptoms of depression
Recent research has concluded that a Mediterranean diet can help to lower your risk of depression.
In this study, experts found that a diet low in saturated fat, sugar, and processed foods reduced the risk of depression by 24% over a 12 year period. In contrast, a diet high in these foods has been found to increase the likelihood of depression.
Another study found that people who adhered to a Mediterranean diet most closely had a 33% lower chance of developing depression over the next eight to twelve years, compared with people whose food choices least resembled the diet.
This is thought to be down to the reduced inflammation levels associated with the Mediterranean diet, as studies drew a link between this and lower depression rates.
To enjoy optimal benefits of the Mediterranean diet for your mental health, experts also recommend taking part in physical activity and spending time outdoors.
For further help, have a read of our article 10 things you can do to help yourself through feelings of depression.
What are the downsides of the Mediterranean diet?
Since the Mediterranean diet isn’t based on any specific guidelines when it comes to calorie intake and restricts many processed and refined foods, some people may find it hard to follow and stay on track.
In addition, some food groups encouraged in the Mediterranean diet, such as seafood, can be more expensive to buy than other sources of protein. This can mean that weekly food shops can easily add up and may be problematic for those of a tighter budget.
The Mediterranean diet is generally considered to be one of the healthiest diet plans out there. Due to its antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties, it brings a whole range of health benefits, and can be a key player in helping prevent the onset of chronic disease.
While there are no strict patterns to follow for the Mediterranean diet – which some people may find tricky – if you’re following a dietary pattern that’s generally rich in healthy, whole foods, you’ll be doing great things for your overall health and happiness.
For more healthy diet inspiration, head over to the healthy recipes section of our website. You’ll find everything from healthy breakfast ideas, to sweet and savoury vegan recipes, and quick snack ideas.
Have you tried any new diets recently? What benefits have you experienced from following the Mediterranean diet? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.