Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet: Benefits, What to Eat & What to Avoid

The Mediterranean diet is a trendy diet, widely acclaimed for its health benefits. In fact, the 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets List rank it first. (x)

When one thinks about Mediterranean meals, many picture pizzas, lasagna, long loaves of white bread from Italy and chops of lambs from Greece. However, these dishes are not precisely in line with the healthy dietary guidelines advertised as the Mediterranean diet.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet stems from the traditional food the inhabitants of Greece, Crete and Southern Italy consumed circa 1960. (x) An actual Mediterranean diet centers on legumes, healthy whole grains, seafood, olive oil, fruits, nuts and vegetables, which work great for everything from your heart to your bones. The diet is not just about eating fresh, plant-based food but also incorporating daily physical activity to produce a profound effect on your mental health and well-being.

The tradition and history of the diet started from the social and eating patterns thousands of years ago in Italy and spread to Greece, Spain, Turkey and other areas around the Mediterranean coast. (x) It isn’t just a calorie-restrictive diet, but more like a lifelong pattern of eating and living.

Despite having limited health services, the region had one of the highest life expectancies and lowest rates of chronic disease in the world in the mid-20th century. (x) For example, Cancer is much more prevalent in the United Kingdom, the United States and Scandinavian countries when compared to the Mediterranean region. (x) (x) The region also reports a lower incidence of heart disease than the United States.

While the Mediterranean diet had existed for thousands of years — way before dedicated studies — the diet only began to gain a reputation for disease prevention, weight loss and other health issues in the 1990s after a doctor from Harvard University showcased its health potentials. (x) (x) (x)

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

With studies supporting the value of the Mediterranean diet, let’s take a look at some of its tangible benefits:

  1. Helps With Healthy Weight Loss and Management

The Mediterranean diet might be the eating plan suited for you if you are searching for a weight-loss method that can promote realistic, effective weight management. It incorporates nutrient-dense foods, high-quality protein, healthy fats and relatively low carbs to help promote weight loss and management. A two-year randomized clinical trial carried out in Israel showed that participants on a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet showed a mean weight loss of 4.4 kg (9.7 lbs.) (x)

Its focus on the whole, fresh foods makes it an excellent way of achieving safe and sustainable weight loss. It encourages the replacement of simple carbohydrates with filling low-calorie foods like vegetables, fibers, fruit, beans and legumes. Another reason this diet is excellent for weight management is that it is easier to stick to in the long run when compared to other more restrictive diets. Since it incorporates a different variety of foods, you can still enjoy your favorite foods while on a diet without feeling the urge to give up.

A 2010 analysis of trial data published in The Lancet: Diabetes and Endocrinology showed that subjects placed on a Mediterranean diet lost more weight than subjects on a low-fat diet. (x)

  1. Improves Heart Health

In comparison to the United States, the incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean countries is considerably lower. (x) Their lifestyle and dietary choices, including the supported physical activity, contribute to this lower rate.

Research has shown that the high content of monounsaturated fat and omega-three fatty acids in the Mediterranean diet, among other things, shows a link to a significant reduction in heart disease. (x) The diet impacts oxidized low-density lipoproteins — the bad cholesterol that can accumulate in the arteries and increase the risks of cardiovascular mortality.

The foods on the Mediterranean eating plan aren’t only the reason for keeping our cardiovascular system strong, but the drink — red wine — may lower the risk of heart disease. Please note that the diet only recommends it in moderation, so men or women above 65 should consume no more than five ounces daily. (x)

Studies have shown that since the Mediterranean diet positively affects risk factors for cardiovascular diseases such as cholesterol, high blood pressure, and triglycerides, it can significantly reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack. (x)

A 12 years study carried out by a team of researchers from Harvard Medical school involving 25,000 American women showed that there was about a 25 percent decrease in the incidence of heart attack and stroke in participants that had a middle and upper intake of the Mediterranean diet compared to those who had a low intake. (x)

Another finding from a 2013 randomized clinical trial referred to as the PREDIMED trial carried out on 7,477 participants in Spain, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed promising results. (x) The study carried out on participants who had type 2 diabetes and were at high risk for cardiovascular disease showed that the group who were on a calorie unrestricted Mediterranean diet high in nuts or olive oil had a 30 percent reduced risk of heart issues.

  1. Helps Protect Against Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic state of your body. You can reverse it primarily through weight loss by combining a healthier diet with increased physical activity. People with type 2 diabetes experience insulin resistance, and the key to reversing it is to lower carb consumption in order to reduce the excess sugar level of the blood. The plant-based Mediterranean diet can help keep the blood sugar level in check and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (x) Because of its rich calories of whole foods — healthy fatty acids, quality protein, and low sugar carbohydrate — it helps in efficient fat burning and helps retain energy.

Research has suggested that the Mediterranean diet can act as an anti-inflammatory agent to help stave off diseases such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome caused by chronic inflammation. (x) The Mediterranean diet also helps regulate insulin production — the hormones responsible for controlling blood sugar levels and weight gain despite being on a diet. It makes it beneficial for preventing diabetes.

Compared with several other healthy eating plans, such as the high-fiber, vegan and low-carbohydrate diet, the Mediterranean diet was more beneficial for an individual with high blood sugar. Also, when compared to a low-fat diet, people on the Mediterranean diet who had type 2 diabetes experienced better blood sugar control and weight loss. (x) Other studies have shown that people with type 2 diabetes who followed the Mediterranean diet had better chances of fending off heart diseases and promoting better glycemic control. (x)

  1. Helps Combat Mood Swings and Other Mental Health Issues 

The Mediterranean diet has some endocrine-boosting benefits that can help treat mental health issues like depressionanxiety and even ADHD. Mental health issues occur when dopamine — the hormone responsible for regulating our moods and influencing our overall well-being- has not adequately supplied the whole system. The Mediterranean diet incorporates healthy fats and probiotic foods that can help produce this feel-good hormone. These foods also help to improve gut health — another trigger for mood swings. 

A recent study that aggregates the results of 41 different studies showed a relationship between the Mediterranean diet and a reduced risk of developing depression — proving that food and a healthy lifestyle can positively affect your body, mind, and spirit. Eat well, exercise and avoid stress triggers to keep you living well. (x) The journal Molecular Psychiatry also published a study in 2018 that showed that healthy eating habits in line with the Mediterranean diet could help decrease the prevalence of depression. (x)

  1. Prevents Cognitive Decline and Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease that causes repeated loss of memory is a significant concern for older adults. However, the Mediterranean diet helps to protect seniors from these risks. Its rich, healthy fat content makes it a body-boosting agent for preventing cognitive decline. The American College for Advancement in Medicine (ACAM) posted an article Aging Gracefully Now, supporting the Mediterranean Diet to reduce the chances of being at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other health concerns. (x) ACAM also published an article about treating dementia related to Parkinson’s disease, especially a Mediterranean diet. (x)

The Mediterranean diet helps improve our blood sugar levels and cholesterol level and maintains the health of our blood vessels. All these work together to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The journal Frontiers in Nutrition published information about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, about longevity and cognitive behavior. (x)

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published a study called the Health and Retirement Study, which aimed at seeing if the Mediterranean diet would help reduce inflammation and improve memory in older adults. (x) The study was on 5,907 older adults by grouping them into different diet types, including the Mediterranean-style diet. At the end of the test, the results showed that those who were on the Mediterranean-style diet recorded a 35 percent decrease in their chances of scoring low on their cognitive test.

  1. May Help Ward off Specific Types of Cancer

Data from the National Cancer Institute shows that about 38.4 percent of Americans are likely to get cancer at some point in their life. (x) You can increase your chances of being off these statistics by incorporating the right food into your preventive care plan. The plant-based Mediterranean diet that includes tons of veggies and fruits can help ward off cancer in many ways, from delaying tumor growth to stop cell mutation.

A meta-analysis and review of 83 studies examining more than 2 million people in 2017 published in the journal Nutrients suggested that the Mediterranean diet helped reduce the risk of developing cancer — specifically colorectal and breast cancer — and reduced the risk of cancer-related deaths. (x)Also, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015, women on the Mediterranean diet showed a 62 percent reduced risk of breast cancer compared to those on a low-fat diet. (x)

Mediterranean Diet Benefits

What to Eat When on the Mediterranean Diet?

Natural and unprocessed foods should be the bulk of your eating plan when on the Mediterranean diet. You get to enjoy a lot of delicious foods and might even get some new favorites because the diet isn’t restrictive. Try to get a balance of minerals, vitamins and nutrients by shooting for a wide variety of food. Some of these foods are:

  1. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds include sunflower, walnuts, pumpkin, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, cashew, almonds, and sesame seeds. (x)

  1. Produce

Eat plenty of leafy greens like kale or spinach, non-starchy veggies like cauliflower, artichokefennel and eggplant, fruits like oranges, berries and pears. Other produce also includes tomatoes, broccoli, melon and Brussels sprouts. (x) (x)

  1. Legumes

Legumes will provide a great source of fiber and protein for people who follow this diet. For this, try to eat beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas.

  1. Tubers

Tubers are another vital part of the Mediterranean diet; however, only eat them in moderation. Try to eat yams, turnips, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Roasting them is a great way to enjoy them with protein and salad. 

  1. Whole Grains

Dump refined carbohydrates for a healthier alternative like whole grains, rye, barley, corn and brown rice.

  1. Fish and Other Seafood

Enjoy seafood and wild-caught fish like trout, tuna, sardines, mackerel and salmon at least twice a week. (x)

  1. Poultry

Occasionally enjoy high-quality pasture-raised poultry like turkey, duck and chicken.

  1. Eggs and Diary

Try to eat cheese, goat milk, eggs, probiotic-rich kefir or yogurt. They provide a good source of protein and healthy fats.

  1. Healthy Fats

A lot of research has attributed some of the legendary health benefits of the Mediterranean diet to its copious amount of healthy fats from nuts, avocado and olive oil. (x)

  1. Herbs and Spices

Accentuate your meals by improving their taste, smell, and look with oregano, parsley, pepper, rosemary, mint, sage, garlic, basil and nutmeg.

  1. Fluids

Drink plenty of fresh, filtered water, a moderate amount of tea and coffee, and often have a daily glass of red wine.

Ratatouille – Standard Mediterranean Dish

Ratatouille is an excellent example of a Mediterranean dish that has all the proper ingredients for the diet. Carol L. Hunter, Ph.D., PMHCNS, CNP shares her recipe on ACAM’s website. She says, “It’s a wonderful side dish, or it can be the foundation for other great dishes.” (x)

Foods to Avoid?

When on the Mediterranean diet, the main foods to avoid are heavily processed foods and foods containing added sugar and refined carbohydrates. Here is a more specific list:

  • Foods that list sugar as an ingredient like ice cream, candies and sodas
  • Food made from refined grains and wheat, which includes pasta and white bread
  • Foods filled with trans-fat that are usually present in margarine and other processed foods
  • Processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages
  • Highly processed foods with a long list of ingredients that have chemical-sounding names as well as labels, such as ‘diet’ or ‘low-fat’
  • Refined oils such as soybean and canola oil

The Bottom Line

The Mediterranean diet doesn’t just provide a tasty way to drink, eat and live, but is also one of the healthiest diets known to man. For thousands of years, this diet has proven beneficial for a host of health concerns, including cognitive impairment, cancer, heart issues, weight loss, mood swings and type 2 diabetes.

The Mediterranean diet is also a way of living better and healthier with less stress with a positive outcome well into your golden years. 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Author: Kevin Baronowsky