Fashionable diet plans come and go, but one dietary approach remains enduringly popular, and that’s the Mediterranean diet. This way of eating is based on the traditional diets of people from countries like Italy and Greece and is believed to be excellent for our hearts, our health, and our planet. It may even help us to live longer.
So, what exactly is the Mediterranean Diet and why do researchers think that it is good for our health and wellbeing? We’ve brought together all the facts so that you can learn everything you need to know about this super-healthy way of eating.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
As the name suggests, the Mediterranean Diet is based on the traditional eating patterns of people who live in the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.
There are plenty of cultural variations in the daily diet of people in these different countries, and between the regions within the countries themselves. But there are also some shared characteristics that researchers have pinpointed in being important to our health and wellbeing. These include:
- A high proportion of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Plenty of whole grains
- Lots of other plant-based foods, such as legumes, nuts, and seeds
- The use of olive oil
- Some fish and other seafood
- Some dairy, mainly in the form of yoghurt and cheese
- A limited amount of red meat
- A limited amount of sweet, sugary treats
When it comes to drinks, sugary fizzy drinks and fruit juices are also missing from this diet plan. Instead, people on the Mediterranean Diet are encouraged to drink plenty of water. Some red wine is also allowed in moderation, but other alcohol isn’t encouraged.
Is the Mediterranean Diet healthy?
Unlike many dietary approaches, the Mediterranean Diet didn’t first catch mainstream attention as a way to lose weight. It was due to the famous Seven Countries study, by researcher Ancel Keys and his team, that the health benefits of this way of eating were discovered.
Keys was interested in the connection between cardiovascular disease and diet. Over ten years, the initial study monitored heart disease in participants from seven different countries, including Greece and Italy. What they found shed an important light on the role of our diet in protecting our hearts. While countries like the USA and Finland had a high rate of heart disease, the Mediterranean countries included in the study had a very low rate.
The researchers concluded that the Mediterranean Diet is good for our heart health, because it is low in cholesterol and high in antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits. As a result, the Mediterranean Diet is often recommended to anyone concerned about their risk of heart disease.
Since that initial study, interest in the possible health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet has grown. It is thought that the diet has the following additional benefits for our health:
1. Reduce the risk of diabetes
As you probably know, type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops when our bodies can no longer properly process glucose (sugar). So control of blood sugar is an important factor in both managing and preventing this disease.
Numerous studies have looked at the impact of the Mediterranean Diet on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and have found that it is an effective way to control blood sugar levels. This means it is a good option for anyone looking to reduce their risk of developing diabetes in the future, as well as anyone who already has diabetes and wants to manage the disease.
2. Prevent cancer
We know that antioxidants found in healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and olive oil, are vital to fighting oxidative stress – a condition that occurs when harmful free radicals from our environment build up beyond our bodies’ ability to neutralise them.
When this happens, it causes inflammation and can result in chronic diseases, such as cancer. Since the Mediterranean Diet is rich in foods that contain high levels of antioxidants, researchers have been interested in studying whether it could help to reduce cancer risk. A recent review of the evidence so far concluded that eating a Mediterranean Diet long term can indeed protect against cancer.
3. Boost brain health
Foods that are high in antioxidants and Omega-3 fats are known to be good for our brain health, as are vitamins E, C, K, and B and minerals such as magnesium and zinc.
The best sources of many of these essential nutrients are vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruit – all of the foods that the Mediterranean Diet encourages us to eat. So, it is no surprise that research has found a link between this dietary approach and better brain health, including a reduced risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Combat depression
It seems that the Mediterranean Diet might be good for more than just our physical health. As scientists understand more about the role of good nutrition, it is becoming clearer that diet might play a role in the treatment and prevention of mental health issues, including depression.
The Mediterranean Diet especially is thought to be good for depression because it contains a high number of polyphenols, a group of compounds that occur naturally in plants. A 2020 review of the evidence that polyphenol-rich diets, like the Mediterranean Diet, help to fight depression agreed that diet does indeed have a role to play in combatting this mental health issue.
Does the Mediterranean Diet help with weight loss?
The evidence on the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet for our physical and mental health is pretty convincing. But you may be wondering if this way of eating can help you to lose weight too.
As we’ve said, the primary interest in the Mediterranean Diet has been its effect on our long-term health. Since we know that obesity can cause health issues, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, there have been various studies looking at the effect of the Mediterranean Diet on weight-loss.
For example, one study, published in 2020, gave participants a choice of diet – intermittent fasting, the Paleo Diet, or the Mediterranean Diet. After a year, the group following the Mediterranean Diet had an average weight-loss of 4 kg, compared with 2.8 kg for the intermittent fasters and just 1.8 kg in the Paleo group.
What is particularly interesting about this study, apart from the higher weight-loss in the Mediterranean Diet group, is that a higher proportion of this group were able to stick to their diet in the long-term.
This seems to be one of the strengths of the Mediterranean Diet – it doesn’t require complicated meal plans, time-restricted eating, or a strict adherence to portion control. Unlike the Paleo Diet, foods that are allowed under the Mediterranean Diet are relatively easy to find when out and about.
So, for anyone interested in making long-term, sustainable changes to their diet for the sake of their health and wellbeing, the Mediterranean Diet may be a good choice. Whether it helps you to lose weight or not likely depends on your existing diet and exercise regime, but evidence suggests that it can be an effective way to combat obesity and promote a healthy body weight.
Is the Mediterranean Diet environmentally friendly?
Although we’ve focused on the health benefits in this article (this is a health and fitness website, after all), it is also worth noting that the Mediterranean Diet might be good for the planet, as well as for our health.
Because of its focus on fresh fruit and vegetables, proponents of the Mediterranean Diet argue that it encourages local, seasonal eating – which is good news for food miles. The emphasis on plant-based foods also means those who move onto the Mediterranean Diet are likely to reduce their meat intake. Since red meat especially uses a lot of water (and can produce quite a bit of methane), this is also good for the planet.
Finally, the varied diet encouraged by the Mediterranean Diet puts the focus on a wide-range of different crops, rather than encouraging the growth of crops like wheat and corn as monocultures. So, if we all ate a Mediterranean Diet, we’d likely see a form of farming develop to meet the need that encourages greater biodiversity.
Food and sustainability is a complex topic, and whether the Mediterranean Diet is good for the planet will depend on where you live and how you shop – buying lots of imported fruits and vegetables is not ideal, for example – but it is likely to be more environmentally friendly than the standard Western diet.
How to get started on the Mediterranean Diet
If the evidence has convinced you and you are ready to get stuck into eating a Mediterranean Diet, we suggest investing in some good cookbooks to help you get started. We’ve put three of our favourites here, but there are plenty of others out there too.
You will probably also need to do an audit of your fridge and pantry – get rid of any non-complaint items like sugary snacks, white bread, processed foods, and fizzy drinks. Stock up instead on lots of fruits and vegetables, grab some legumes and whole-grain pasta, and a few portions of your favourite fish and seafood. Eggs, nuts, Greek yoghurt, and herbs are a good addition too. And, of course, you’ll need plenty of extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on salads.
For the first few weeks, it might help to make a meal plan so that you know what you are eating each day. Use your new cookbook to help! As you get used to eating in this way, it should begin to feel more natural and you will likely find you want to experiment more with different recipes and food combinations.