What you eat could be key to your good health and longevity. People who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea tend to have lower levels of heart disease and live longer than Americans. Their diet may get credit for that.
The Mediterranean diet is loaded with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and pulses. It minimizes sugar, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbs, saturated fats and fatty or processed meats.
To make it easier to understand, in 1993 the nonprofit group Oldways partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) to create the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, a healthier alternative to the USDA food pyramid.
“It’s a plant-forward diet that doesn’t exclude healthy fats. Seafood, chicken and meat are eaten, but they are not the center of the plate. And it celebrates the enjoyment of food,” she said.
What does the research say about the Mediterranean diet?
“Health experts love the Mediterranean diet. It’s everything a diet should be,” said Karen Ansel, a New York-based registered dietitian and author of “Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging.”
The diet may help you:
- Focus your food choices on how to lose weight
- Keep your heart and brain healthier
- Protect against cancer
- Prevent or control diabetes
“It’s so well studied compared to other dietary approaches — there’s a lot of research,” Cassetty said.
A study published in Nutrition & Diabetes analyzed the diets of more than 32,000 Italians over an average of 12 years. It found an association between the Mediterranean diet and lower levels of weight gain and less increase in waist circumference.
The American Heart Association reports that a Mediterranean diet might help reduce excess cholesterol and keep blood vessels open.
Is the Mediterranean diet a good choice for you?
“It’s a healthy diet for just about everyone,” Ansel said. With the right food choices, it can be among the best ways to lose weight. And it can work if you want to improve your overall health, even if you’re comfortable with your weight.
Here’s what people like about this diet:
- It includes generous portion sizes. “If you like to sit down and eat a real meal, you’re going to be satisfied,” Ansel said. The foods it emphasizes are high in fiber and often rich in water, which helps you feel full. And it includes healthy fats that promote satiety.
- It offers lots of choices. You can eat many different foods on the Mediterranean diet. Even red meat and sweets are OK occasionally.
- It encourages plant-focused meals. “For people who are interested in more plant-based eating, it has a flexitarian focus but doesn’t eliminate animal foods,” Cassetty said. It’s also a good choice for vegetarians and vegans.
- It supports a healthy overall eating pattern. With the Mediterranean diet, you don’t have to count calories or track nutrients. You eat what you choose from a large group of healthy foods.
- It provides health benefits. The Mediterranean diet can help you age healthfully, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, regulate your blood sugar, fight cancer, protect against dementia and improve your gut bacteria. And a small study found it might help relieve depression symptoms.
If you’re accustomed to a meat-and-potatoes diet, or to eating a lot of fast food and convenience food, you might want to transition gradually to the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean approach might not be an ideal choice if you’re looking for a diet that provides a lot of structure or specific meal plans to lose weight. It can also be expensive if you buy a lot of fresh produce and whole foods.
What can you eat on the Mediterranean diet?
What is the Mediterranean diet food list? You’ll base your meals around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices and healthy fats like olive oil.
Recipes for the Mediterranean diet include fish and seafood at least twice a week. You can build healthy recipes for dinner around poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt, which are recommended daily to weekly. Red meat and sweets are part of Mediterranean diet recipes infrequently, and wine is allowed in moderation. Water is recommended.
The pyramid is built on a base of physical activity and shared meals — food is meant to be enjoyed with others.
In a typical day, you might eat:
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with fruit and a drizzle of honey
- Lunch: A salad with a bed of nonstarchy veggies such as lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, plus beans, olives and chicken
- Dinner: Salmon, roasted broccoli and quinoa
- Snack: Hummus with veggie sticks
The Mediterranean diet is similar to:
- Pesco-Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fish and seafood for animal protein
- DASH diet, which is designed to lower blood pressure
- MIND diet, a blend of the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, designed to promote brain health
- Flexitarian diet, a mostly vegetarian diet that permits some animal protein
- Mayo Clinic diet, which includes similar foods and adds a focus on calories to promote weight loss and maintenance
Is the Mediterranean diet effective long-term?
Yes. It can help you stay healthy and it may also help you maintain a healthy weight. Talk with your doctor before starting the Mediterranean diet or any other diet — your doctor can recommend the best eating plan for you, based on your health needs.