It’s no secret by now that people who live in the Mediterranean region—like Greece, Italy, and Spain—live longer and healthier lives than those in many other countries. Beyond their zest for life, chalk it up to what’s on their plates.
Year after year, the Mediterranean diet is ranked as one of the top diets by a panel of health experts at U.S. News & World Report, and an overwhelming amount of research shows it can lead to sustainable weight loss, improve heart health and brain function, and even prevent chronic conditions like diabetes and cancer.
Maybe it’s because the Mediterranean diet doesn’t fit into the restrictive calorie-driven framework of an actual “diet.” But it’s not quite as simple as chowing down on pasta, pizza, and hummus, either. The Mediterranean diet is actually more of a style of eating that involves lots of olive oil, fresh fruits and veggies, fatty fish, and even the occasional glass of red wine.
Here’s everything you need to know to embrace the #1 diet in the world.
What is the Mediterranean diet, exactly?
Unlike other diets, the Mediterranean diet is about the foods you should eat, rather than foods you should restrict. There aren’t any major rules about counting your calories, sugar intake, or macros. It simply encourages enjoying whole foods in moderation (what a concept!).
Mediterranean diet foods list
Creating a Mediterranean-approved grocery list is simple, and there are more foods you can add to your cart than foods you should avoid, says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. Ultimately, think of the Mediterranean diet as a plant-based eating plan with fish, poultry, and dairy occasionally thrown into the mix.
Eat plenty of:
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
- Fish and other types of seafood at least twice per week
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oats
- Fresh herbs
Eat in moderation:
- Poultry and eggs
- Dairy like milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Red wine (up to 1 glass per day for women and 2 glasses per day for men)
Limit your intake:
- Refined grains and oils
- Red meat or deli meats
- Processed or packaged foods
- Foods high in added sugar, such as pastries or candies
What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
It wouldn’t be the top diet for multiple years running if it wasn’t really good for you. Unlike many fad diets, there’s an abundance of legit studies that back up the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, with highlights in the following areas:
Alongside the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet is known to protect your ticker. One large study of more than 30,000 women found that adherence to the eating plan over a 10-year period lead to lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure. In another study, participants had lower blood pressure after following the Mediterranean diet for just six months.
Researchers attribute these positive outcomes to the abundance of heart-healthy nutrients found in the diet’s whole foods, like antioxidants from fresh fruits and veggies, fiber found in whole grains, and healthy unsaturated fats packed in fish, nuts, and olive oil.
A comprehensive 2017 review states that people living in the Mediterranean region have lower rates of cancer than those in Northern Europe or the United States, and the authors credit this impressive stat to following a Mediterranean diet. Research has also found that loading up on Mediterranean food staples can decrease the levels of inflammatory markers that are associated with tumor growth.
In a study of more than 10,000 Spanish men and women over a 5-year period, researchers concluded that those who had the highest adherence to the Mediterranean diet gained the least amount of weight annually (and had the lowest risk of packing on significant pounds) compared to those who didn’t stick with it as closely.
What’s more, when compared with a low-fat diet in another study, the Mediterranean diet resulted in almost double the amount of weight loss, thanks to a higher intake of satiating fats and fiber, which tend to stabilize your blood sugar, the researchers note.
Type 2 diabetes
In one 2015 review of research, the Mediterranean diet was associated with better glycemic control than other diets. Translation: Researchers think that the high intake of polyphenols (a.k.a. plant compounds that act as antioxidants) from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts can improve insulin sensitivity and therefore reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Scientists also surmise that polyphenols may be beneficial for brain health, specifically when it comes to depression, since polyphenols influence neurotransmitters in the brain that possess anti-depression activities.
In addition to regular exercise, quitting smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight, the World Health Organization also specifically recommends following a Mediterranean diet to decrease your risk of developing dementia as it is “the most extensively studied dietary approach in relation to cognitive function.”
Are there any downsides of following a Mediterranean diet?
With its prestigious reputation and science-backed benefits, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t seem to have many cons. But like any eating plan, having certain indulgences in moderation can be tough for some people, according to Gorin. “The diet limits certain foods, such as alcohol and dairy, so you may feel like you miss them if you follow the Mediterranean diet,” she says.
It also recommends restricting your intake of processed foods, red meat, and sugary desserts. While this is common with any healthy diet, it can be challenging (read: cue the cravings!) at first if you’re used to eating these foods on the regular.
How to get started on the Mediterranean diet
When planning your Mediterranean menu, Gorin suggests thinking outside the box and including colorful ingredients, such as wild blueberries, in your daily diet. “Wild blueberries boast anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant that may help boost cognitive function, inhibit growth of certain cancer cells, and even help lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol,” says Gorin.
She also recommends eating fish at least twice per week. “Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and herring have the omega-3’s EPA and DHA, which can help you lower risk of heart disease,” Gorin says. Here’s how to include these important ingredients in a typical day on the Mediterranean diet.
Breakfast: Smoothie with 1 cup wild blueberries, ½ banana, ½ cup plain Greek yogurt and 1 tablespoon of nut butter
Lunch: Buddha bowl made with ½ cup lentils, 1 to 2 cups various colored veggies, ½ cup chickpeas, 1/3 avocado and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice
Snack: 1 to 2 tablespoons of hummus, sliced bell peppers, and carrots
Dinner: 3.5 ounces grilled salmon, 1/2 cooked brown rice, kale sautéed in 1 tablespoon olive oil
Dessert: 1 ounce of dark chocolate and 1 ounce of nuts
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