The Mediterranean is not only a beautiful place to visit, but the healthy eating pattern named after it is also lauded as one of the best overall diets in the world.
Read on to learn more about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and how to know if it's a good fit for you.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
“At its core, the Mediterranean diet is a plant-based diet that focuses on lean meats, like poultry and fish, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and heart-healthy fats, especially olive oil,” said Jennifer Oikarinen, a registered dietitian with Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix. “Although it puts limits on red meat, added sugar, refined carbs and other processed foods, what many people love about the Mediterranean diet is it emphasizes more what to eat, instead of everything you can’t.”
This diet uses herbs and spices to flavor foods instead of salt. It also gives allowances for low-fat dairy products and moderate amounts of red wine.
What can you eat and not eat on the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet has its own food pyramid, different from our traditional food pyramid in the U.S.
The base of the pyramid represents foods that you should eat every day and in every meal. The next tier represents foods that you ideally should have at least two times a week, including fish and seafood. The smallest portion includes red meat, saturated fats and some sweets.
Here’s a look at the most common staples of the Mediterranean style diet according to the pyramid:
- Vegetables: Two servings of vegetables in a variety of colors at every meal. Traditional choices include kale, beets and sweet potatoes.
- Fruits: One to two servings are recommended after lunch and dinner. Options for fruits include dates, figs, apples and apricots.
- Grains: One to two servings of whole grains like bread, pasta and rice can be eaten at every meal.
- Fats: Choose olive oil instead of butter. Limit your olive oil intake to between one and four tablespoons a day.
- Meat and fish: Limit red meat intake to a few times a month and focus on getting protein rich omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and tuna. Eating processed meats is not not recommended.
- Dairy: Three servings of low-fat yogurt, cheese or milk (or milk alternatives like almond or cashew) per week.
- Red wine: For most people, drink one glass of red wine per day. Drinking more than that may actually elevate your risk for certain cancers.
“It’s recommended that women have up to one 5-ounce glass of wine per day and men have up to two 5-ounce glasses daily for men,” Oikarinen said. “However, don’t start drinking to see benefits from this diet or if you have a family history of alcohol addiction or are currently pregnant.”
Advantages and disadvantages of the Mediterranean diet
It’s a way of life embraced by those living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, but is it a good fit for those of us living across the pond? Here we cover the pros and cons of the Mediterranean diet so you can decide if this diet is right for you.
Benefits of the Mediterranean diet
1. It has many health benefits
According to the American Heart Association, this style of eating may play a role in preventing heart disease and stroke and reducing your risk for obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
This diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory foods and monounsaturated fats like olive oil, which does not raise cholesterol levels the way saturated and trans fats do. There is even some evidence that the use of virgin olive oil may help your body remove excess cholesterol from arteries and keep blood vessels open.
“The PREDIMED study, a primary prevention trial including thousands of people with diabetes or other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or nuts and without any fat and calorie restrictions reduced the rates of death from stroke by roughly 30%,” Oikarinen said. “As well, the risk of type 2 diabetes was also reduced.”
The Mediterranean diet may also help with brain health. A systematic review of studies found that this style of diet may curb the advancement of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce the risk of progressing from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s.
2. It may help you lose weight
This isn’t a weight-loss diet, per se, but you may see positive results on your waistline by eating a Mediterranean diet, as long as you follow a balanced lifestyle.
3. The diet is good for the environment
This style of diet is predominantly plant-based, with some lean proteins and dairy. “This focus on plants may benefit the planet just as much as you,” Oikarinen said. “Meat production, particularly beef, produce greater greenhouse gas emissions than growing plants.”
Risks with the Mediterranean diet
1. It could also lead to weight gain
There’s no set rulebook for this eating style, so it may be possible to go overboard on certain foods, such as olive oil and nuts. The high-caloric intake of olive oil and nuts may contribute to weight gain, if not calculated into your daily caloric intake.
2. Your grocery bill may go up
When you make the switch from highly processed foods to nutrient-dense, healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish, your grocery bill could increase slightly.
3. You still need to talk to your provider
While the diet is safe for most people, there are a few considerations to keep in mind if you have a health condition:
- Moderate consumption of red wine is encouraged; however, it’s not advised if you’re taking certain medications, have uncontrolled diabetes or have a history of pancreatitis or GERD.
- If you have digestive issues, such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance, a traditional Mediterranean diet may set you up for stomach problems.
“As with starting any new exercise or eating plan, it’s always best to check in with your health care provider or dietitian to see if this diet is a good fit for you,” Oikarinen said.
Try these recipes
If this eating style sounds like it’s for you, here are some recipes to get you started:
The Mediterranean diet is a nutritious eating style that focuses on plant-based foods, lean proteins and unsaturated fats. It’s associated with numerous health benefits and may help reduce your risk of heart disease, enhance brain function and more. However, it’s best to talk with your health care provider before starting this diet.