With its emphasis on foods such as fruits, vegetables and olive oil, the Mediterranean diet is a top choice for healthy eating. Research shows it can help prevent chronic disease, including conditions such as diabetes and stroke.
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It’s no secret that your dietary choices can have a profound impact on your health.
One of most popular diets involves Mediterranean food. It’s been heavily researched since it first captured attention more than 60 years ago.
It’s called the Mediterranean diet. Research shows it may be able to help reduce the likelihood of conditions such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Is this healthy diet the right eating plan for you?
In this article, we will:
- Explain what the Mediterranean diet is and how it works
- Discuss the history of this eating plan
- Share some key benefits of the Mediterranean diet
- List foods to include and foods to avoid on this diet
- Offer some meal ideas that can help you get started with this eating plan
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan that takes its inspiration from the traditional foods of countries that are clustered around the Mediterranean Sea.
There are many different countries in the Mediterranean region. That means a traditional Mediterranean diet can vary. As such, there are different versions of this eating plan, and guidelines aren’t set in stone.
A flexible eating pattern
In fact, this approach is more an eating pattern or dietary pattern than a regimented diet. You won’t find a lot of hard rules here. For example, unlike keto, there are no firm requirements about what your macronutrient ratio should look like when you’re on this eating plan. And unlike a vegan diet, you don’t have to completely abstain from certain foods.
What’s clear, though, is that this diet heavily favors foods that are plant-based. Those on this eating plan consume a lot of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and fruit. Olive oil also plays a big role in completing the menu.
Still, adopting the Mediterranean diet doesn’t mean you have to completely give up animal-based foods such as meat, eggs, dairy and fish. This diet allows for some consumption of fish, poultry and eggs every week. When it comes to red meat and dairy products such as cheese, this way of eating recommends limited intake.
And if you’re a wine lover, you won’t have to make ditch your favorite drink. Though water is the main daily beverage, this diet allows wine, consumed in moderation.
While it’s made up of certain food choices, the Mediterranean diet is about more than just the menu items on your plate.
This way of eating is part of an overall lifestyle. And that lifestyle is inspired by practices that have brought the Mediterranean people good health and happiness for many decades.
It includes meals shared with your family and loved ones. It also encourages a healthy amount of physical activity.
Mediterranean diet history
The Mediterranean diet is based on eating patterns that date back to the Middle Ages. It began attracting attention after research uncovered its health benefits.
Scientist Ancel Keys — an American who worked with the University of Minnesota – is the researcher who first brought this diet into the mainstream spotlight. While conducting studies back in the 1950s, Keys discovered something that he couldn’t understand or explain: Impoverished residents of small towns in southern Italy were much healthier than wealthy people who lived in New York.
Hoping to find an explanation for what he had observed, Keys embarked on what came to be known as the Seven Countries Study. Carried out in Finland, Holland, Italy, Greece, Japan, Yugoslavia and the United States, this study aimed to document the link between the lifestyles, nutrition and cardiovascular health of people from different parts of the world. It was through this research that Keys was able to prove the value and health benefits provided by the Mediterranean diet.
Keys shared his findings with the public via a book that was first published in the 1970s, called How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way.
In his work, Keys described the diet in these terms:
“Homemade minestrone, pasta of all varieties, with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan, only occasionally enriched with a few pieces of meat or served with a small fish of the place, beans and macaroni … so much bread, never removed from the oven more than a few hours before being eaten… lots of fresh vegetables sprinkled with olive oil, a small portion of meat or fish maybe a couple of times a week and always fresh fruit for dessert.”
In the years following Keys’ original research, many studies have been done on the Mediterranean diet. They’ve consistently shown that this eating style can bring health benefits such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Benefits of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet provides these benefits:
1. Supports heart health
Cardiovascular disease is a major health problem in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the U.S., one person dies every 36 seconds from heart disease. And the CDC estimates that about 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year.
Research clearly shows that the Mediterranean diet can help reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease. In one 12-year study conducted on 25,994 U.S. women, participants who followed this eating plan were 25 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
Why is a Mediterranean-style diet so strongly linked with heart health? This eating pattern includes fatty acids that support cardiovascular wellness, such as the omega 3 fatty acids found in olive oil and nuts. And it discourages the consumption of red meat, a food that has been shown to increase your likelihood of developing heart disease.
2. Reduces risk of stroke
The CDC reports that more than 795,000 Americans get a stroke each year. This condition is a leading cause of death and long-term disability in this country. A stroke can be caused by things such as high blood pressure, smoking, obesity and diabetes.
Research indicates that the Mediterranean diet can help reduce the likelihood that you’ll get a stroke. In one U.K study that included 17 years of follow-up, greater adherence to this eating pattern was associated with lower stroke risk.
3. May improve cognitive function
Cognitive function impacts our productivity and efficiency. It’s something many people seek to optimize, and it can sometimes deteriorate as we age.
Studies show that a Mediterranean-style eating plan may help improve cognition. In research published in 2013, this diet was associated with better cognitive function. The data also shows that a Mediterranean diet is linked with slower cognitive decline among aging adults.
4. Reduces risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease can be devasting, and it causes a lot of suffering here in the U.S. According to information published by Alzheimer’s Association, this condition affects more than 5 million Americans. It kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined, and it costs the nation $305 billion in healthcare expenses.
A Mediterranean diet may slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. One study tracked 34 people who followed a Mediterranean-style eating plan and 36 people who ate a typical Western diet. Brain scans taken over the course of a couple of years revealed that those in the Western diet group had a higher incidence of beta-amyloid deposits. These deposits have been linked with Alzheimer’s.
5. May help prevent type 2 diabetes
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), 10.4 percent of Americans have diabetes. It was listed as the seventh leading cause of death in 2017, and evidence suggests it may be underreported.
Eating a Mediterranean diet may reduce your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. One study assessed 418 participants over a four-year period. It found that a Mediterranean diet appeared to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by as much as 52 percent.
6. Supports healthy weight loss
It’s estimated that roughly 74 percent of American adults age 20 and over are either overweight or obese.
The right diet can help with healthy weight loss. Research shows that a Mediterranean-style eating plan can be an effective tool if you want to shed a few pounds.
In a 2008 study involving 322 moderately obese subjects, participants on a Mediterranean diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat diet. This diet had the added benefit of improving blood sugar and insulin levels for participants with diabetes.
Mediterranean diet: Foods to include
These menu items will make up the bulk of your diet. Include them with most of your meals:
- Fruits, such as bananas, apples, pears, grapes, watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, blackberries, peaches, dates and figs
- Vegetables, such as broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, carrots, kale, spinach and Brussels sprouts
- Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, oats, brown rice, bulgur, corn and quinoa
- Healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hempseeds, walnuts, hazelnuts and cashews
- Legumes, such as black beans, peas, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, lentils and peanuts
- Tubers, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and turnips
- Herbs and spices, such as garlic, mint, basil, rosemary, sage, oregano and cinnamon
These foods are your preferred animal proteins. Aim to consume them at least twice a week:
- Fish, such as salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel and tuna
- Seafood, such as crabs, clams, oysters, shrimp and mussels
Consume in moderate amounts:
- Poultry, such as chicken, duck and turkey
- Dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt
- Eggs, such as those from chickens, quails and ducks
Limit consumption to no more than a few times a month:
- Red meat, such as beef, mutton, pork and veal
Consumption of a moderate amount of red wine is optional on this diet. Harvard Medical School recommends no more than a single 5-ounce glass per day for women and two 5-ounce glasses per day for men. If you struggle with alcohol addiction or have difficulty controlling the amount of liquor you consume, red wine should be avoided.
Foods to avoid
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes healthy whole foods. That means you should avoid choices such as:
- Dessert pastries
- Processed red meat, such as hot dogs and bacon
- Refined grains, such as white pasta and white bread
- Heavily processed foods with lots of added sugar and/or salt
- Refined oils, such as soybean oil and canola oil
- Trans fats, found in foods such as margarine
Mediterranean diet meal ideas
Here are some Mediterranean diet meal ideas for breakfast:
- Greek yogurt with blueberries
- Omelet with tomatoes and fruit
- Eggs and vegetables fried in olive oil
- Whole-grain oats with cinnamon and dates
- Oatmeal with raisins and nuts
- Pan-fried egg with whole-wheat toast
- Scrambled eggs with grilled tomatoes
These meal ideas work for lunchtime:
- Vegetable stew with zucchini and yellow squash
- Salmon with mixed greens, tomato and cucumber
- Roasted garbanzo beans with quinoa and avocado
- Salad with steamed kale and tomatoes
- Boiled spiced beans with spinach and olive oil
- Sandwich with whole-grain bread and vegetables
- Tuna salad
Here are some tasty Mediterranean diet dinner ideas:
- Grilled chicken with vegetables and potatoes
- Mackerel with grilled vegetables
- Salmon with tomatoes, cucumbers and steamed kale
- Salad with olives and feta cheese
- Grilled tuna with steamed broccoli and olive oil
- Steamed spinach with a boiled artichoke and olive oil
- Baked cod with a roasted potato
Finally, round out your Mediterranean diet with these healthy snacks:
- Handful of nuts
- Fresh whole fruits, such as grapes, oranges and plums
- Dried fruits, such as figs and raisins
- Hummus with celery sticks
- Apple slices with nut butter
- Baby carrots
- Avocado served with whole-grain toast
The Mediterranean diet is built on healthy whole foods. Chances are you already have many of these foods in your pantry. If not, stop by your local grocery to get the items you need.
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