The Mediterranean diet has a long-standing reputation as one of the healthiest eating patterns around. It’s also considered one of the most popular plans among dieters because it’s flexible, rich in flavorful foods, and brimming with health benefits. In fact, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to increased weight loss, decreased inflammation, and a lower risk of chronic disease. This article takes a look at the Mediterranean diet, including its benefits, potential drawbacks, foods to eat and avoid, and a sample meal plan.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a style of eating that is based on the traditional diets of Mediterranean countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. Researchers noticed that people in these countries had lower rates of chronic disease, compared with those in the United States and Northern Europe, and they attributed this to their unique dietary pattern. Unlike other popular diets, the Mediterranean diet focuses on including certain foods and food groups rather than counting calories or tracking macronutrients. Healthy fats, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains are a few of the key components of the Mediterranean diet. On the other hand, less healthy ingredients like red meat, sweets, and processed foods are restricted.
How to follow the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes mostly nutrient-rich, whole food ingredients like fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains. Though it focuses primarily on plant foods, other ingredients like poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy can also be enjoyed in moderation. Meanwhile, processed foods, added sugars, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages should be avoided. Certain types of alcohol, like red wine, can also be included in moderation but should be limited to no more than one or two servings per day for women and men, respectively. In addition to making changes to your diet, engaging in regular physical activity is another crucial component of the Mediterranean diet. Walking, running, bicycling, rowing, playing sports, and lifting weights are just a few examples of healthy physical activities that you can add to your routine.
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to several health benefits.
Increases weight loss
The Mediterranean diet encourages eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods and limits processed foods and added sugars, which are often high in calories. For this reason, pairing the Mediterranean diet with a healthy lifestyle could promote weight loss.
One review of 5 studies found that the Mediterranean diet was as effective as other popular diets like the low carb diet for weight loss, resulting in up to 22 pounds (10 kg) of weight loss over 1 year. Likewise, a large study in over 32,000 people showed that long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of gaining weight and belly fat over 5 years.
Improves heart health
Multiple studies have found that following the Mediterranean diet could enhance heart health. In one study, following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts or olive oil for 3 months led to significant improvements in cholesterol and systolic blood pressure (the top number of a reading) levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
Similarly, another study observed that following the Mediterranean diet and eating 1 ounce (30 grams) of mixed nuts daily for a year reduced the prevalence of metabolic syndrome by nearly 14%. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. What’s more, a review of 41 reports showed that the Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower risk of heart disease and stroke in people with diabetes.
Protects against type 2 diabetes
Some research has found that the Mediterranean diet could protect against type 2 diabetes. For instance, one study in 418 people noted that those who followed a Mediterranean diet were 52% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes over an average of 4 years, compared with a control group.
Also, a study in 901 people with type 2 diabetes showed that long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet was linked to lower levels of blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C, a marker of long-term blood sugar control. Furthermore, other research suggests that the Mediterranean diet could help improve the body’s ability to use insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar.
Acute inflammation is a normal process that helps your immune system protect against illness and infection. On the other hand, chronic inflammation can contribute to disease and may be involved in the development of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
The Mediterranean diet may help reduce levels of inflammation, which could help prevent illness. For example, one study in 598 people found that stricter adherence to the Mediterranean diet was linked to lower levels of several markers of inflammation. In another study in 66 older adults, following the Mediterranean diet for 3–5 years was associated with decreased markers of inflammation.
Though the Mediterranean diet may be tied to several health benefits, there are a few downsides to consider. For starters, moderate amounts of alcohol are permitted as part of the diet. While most studies show that light to moderate alcohol intake could benefit health, alcohol may not be suitable for everyone. For example, those who are pregnant or have a family history of addiction should avoid alcohol.
Moreover, given that the Mediterranean diet cuts out many processed and refined foods, some people may find it challenging to follow. Additionally, some foods that are encouraged on the diet, such as seafood, may be more costly than other sources of protein, which can make it difficult for those on a tight budget.
Foods to eat and avoid
The Mediterranean diet mostly consists of nutritious, whole food ingredients like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.
Meanwhile, processed foods, added sugars, and refined grains should be limited.
Foods to eat
Here are some foods that you can enjoy as part of the Mediterranean diet:
- Fruits: apples, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, melon, blueberries, pears, peaches, apricots
- Vegetables: spinach, arugula, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, zucchini, asparagus, kale, potatoes
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, beans, peanuts
- Whole grains: quinoa, couscous, millet, oats, brown rice, buckwheat, whole grain pasta, farro
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, goose, duck
- Seafood: salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, mussels
- Eggs: egg yolks and egg whites
- Dairy: cheese, yogurt, milk
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocados, olives, avocado oil
- Herbs and spices: basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, pepper, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, coriander
- Beverages: water, coffee, tea, red wine (1–2 glasses per day)
Foods to avoid
Here are some foods that you should limit or avoid as part of the Mediterranean diet:
- Processed meats: bacon, salami, sausage, hot dogs
- Refined grains: white bread, crackers, biscuits, white pasta, flour tortillas, white rice
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: juice, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks
- Refined oils: vegetable oil, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil
- Processed foods: fast food, chips, convenience meals, microwave popcorn, pretzels
- Added sugar: table sugar, ice cream, candies, cookies, baked goods, ice cream
Here is a sample 3-day menu for the Mediterranean diet.
- Breakfast: veggie omelet with spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms
- Lunch: Greek salad with chicken, feta, olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes
- Dinner: lemon baked cod with broccoli and brown rice
- Breakfast: oatmeal with strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, and cinnamon
- Lunch: grilled chicken with roasted asparagus and buckwheat
- Dinner: whole wheat lasagna with a side salad
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with chia seeds and sliced bananas
- Lunch: zucchini boats stuffed with ground turkey, quinoa, bell peppers, tomatoes, and marinara sauce
- Dinner: baked salmon with sautéed kale and barley
The bottom line
The Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating pattern that is based on the traditional diets of those in countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. The diet encourages nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and whole grains while limiting processed ingredients and added sugar.
Following a healthy Mediterranean diet can not only help increase weight loss but also enhance heart health, reduce inflammation, and promote better blood sugar control.
Source: Health Line