The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and it includes less ultra-processed foods and meat than a typical Western diet.
In this article, we explain what the Mediterranean diet is and provide a 7-day meal plan for people to follow.
How Does the Mediterranean Diet Work?
Because it wasn’t developed ad hoc but is a style of eating in a region of people that evolved naturally over centuries, there’s no official way to follow the Mediterranean diet. It’s popular because it’s a well-rounded approach to eating that isn’t restrictive. Also worth noting is that two of the five so-called blue zones — areas where people live longer and have lower rates of disease — are located in Mediterranean cities.
Potential Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is famous for its touted health benefits, which may be attributed to its high produce content.
Indeed, people typically eat three to nine servings of vegetables and up to two servings of fruit a day on a Mediterranean diet.
These fresh, whole foods pack an array of disease-fighting antioxidants, and people who fill their diet with these foods have a lower risk of disease. Yet scientists don’t know if it’s the antioxidants or other compounds (or general healthy eating patterns) that are responsible for these advantages.
Here’s a snapshot of some possible Mediterranean diet health benefits.
A Healthier Heart:This eating approach may be most famous for its benefit to heart health, decreasing the risk of heart disease by, in part, lowering levels of cholesterol and reducing mortality from cardiovascular conditions.
A Reduced Risk for Certain Cancers: Similarly, the Mediterranean diet has been linked with a lower likelihood of certain cancers, such as breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and some head and neck cancers.
A Sunnier Mood and a Lower Risk of Depression: If eating in the Mediterranean style prompts you to consume more fruit and vegetables, you’ll not only feel better physically, but your mental health will get a lift, too. Research shows that people who eat more raw fruit and veggies (particularly dark leafy greens like spinach, fresh berries, and cucumber) have fewer symptoms of depression, a better mood, and more life satisfaction.
A Lower Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases: Research has found that a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with better measures of general cognitive function. Over time, the eating pattern may slow cognitive decline and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
A Reduced Type 2 Diabetes Risk and Better Diabetes Management: Emerging evidence suggests that eating this way offers protective effects for those who have or are at risk for type 2 diabetes. For one thing, Mediterranean eating improves blood sugar control in those who already have diabetes, suggesting it can be a good way to manage the disease, according to a review of research. What’s more, given that those with diabetes are at increased odds for cardiovascular disease, adopting this diet can help improve their heart health, according to research.
Fewer Osteoarthritis Complications: Thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects, the Mediterranean diet may also lower the risk of bone fractures, weight gain (which can put added pressure on the joints), and disability.
Can the Mediterranean Diet Lead to Weight Loss?
As a traditional way of eating for many cultures worldwide, the Mediterranean diet wasn’t designed for weight loss. It just so happens that one of the healthiest diets around the globe is also good for keeping your weight down.
One review looked at five trials on overweight and obese people and found that after one year those who followed a Mediterranean diet lost as much as 11 pounds (lb.) more than low-fat eaters.
They dropped between 9 and 22 lb. total and kept it off for a year.) But that same study found similar weight loss in other diets, like low-carb diets and the American Diabetes Association diet. The results suggest, the researchers say, that “there is no ideal diet for achieving sustained weight loss in overweight or obese individuals.”
Yet a Mediterranean diet can be a varied and inclusive way to lose weight that ditches gimmicks and doesn’t require calorie or macronutrient counting they way other diets (looking at you, ketogenic diet) do. And with the emphasis on healthy fat, it’s satisfying, too. That said, in 2022 U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet No. 1 in the category Best Diets Overall and 12 in its list of Best Weight-Loss Diets. It’s not a slam dunk, researchers note, and instead depends on how you eat. Portion sizes and fat amounts matter even in healthy diets like the Mediterranean.
4 Tips for Dining Out on the Mediterranean Diet
Heading to a restaurant? Eat the Mediterranean way — and feel satisfied with these tips.
1. Prioritize Vegetables: The Mediterranean diet emphasizes vegetables, so look for vegetable-forward dishes, which can often be found in the appetizer, side, and salad section of the menu. Another option is to start your meal with a salad or roasted vegetables. Ask that they leave off any dressings and drizzle it with olive oil instead.
2. Order the Fish: If you like fish but struggle to eat it at home regularly, order it when you’re out at a restaurant where a chef is preparing it for you. This can be especially impactful if you typically order red meat when out. Go for fatty fish that are packed with omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon is widely available and easy to find, but you may see tuna and mackerel on the menu, too.
3. Limit Alcohol: If you drink alcohol, skip the margarita or beer and instead opt for an occasional glass of red wine, which can be consumed in moderation with your meal. Other times, avoid alcohol altogether in favor of a sparkling plain water with a lemon or lime wedge.
4. Nosh on Fruit for Dessert: In many cultures, fresh fruit is traditionally consumed for dessert.
Most restaurants don’t have fresh fruit on their dessert menu, but you can ask if they’re able to bring out a small fruit cup for you to end your meal. Or, say no to the dessert entirely and head home to fix yourself a plate of berries or a few slices of melon.
5 Beginner Tips to Keep in Mind on the Mediterranean Diet
A registered dietitian-nutritionist, can help you start and stick with the Mediterranean diet, but these tips may also be helpful.
1. Opt for Healthy Fat Sources, and Don’t Go Overboard: By limiting large amounts of red or processed meats and relying heavily on foods that are good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids, like avocado, nuts, or olive oil, you’ll keep saturated fat levels low. These fats don't lead to high cholesterol the same way saturated fats do. Healthful sources of fat include olive oil, fish oils, and nut-based oils, Cohen explains.
Even with healthy fat, your total fat consumption could be greater than the daily recommended amount if you aren't careful. Aim to get 20 to 35 percent of your total daily caloric intake from fat, and for saturated fats to represent less than 10 percent of your total caloric intake, advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
2. Don’t Skimp on Calcium: Cheese and yogurt provide calcium, but on the Mediterranean diet, you eat these only in moderation. Cohen suggests seeking out nondairy sources of calcium, such as fortified almond milk, sardines, kale, and tofu made with calcium sulfate.
3. Carve Out Time in Your Schedule to Cook: While you don’t have to spend hours in your kitchen, you will need to cook, because the diet is all about working with delicious fresh food. There may be a learning curve as you build these skills.
4. Edit Your Favorite Recipes to Make Them Mediterranean Diet Friendly: It’s evident that with such a variety of whole, fresh foods on the table, it’s easy to build meals with this diet. And you don’t have to eliminate your favorites — they may just require some tweaks. For instance, rather than a sausage and pepperoni pizza, you’d choose one piled high with veggies. You can also fit a lot of different foods into one meal. Filling up on fresh fruit and vegetables will allow you to build volume into meals for fewer calories.
5. Don’t Go Overboard on Alcohol: One hallmark of a Mediterranean diet is that sociable consumption of red wine is thought to be a big reason why the diet is so healthy. But women should still stick to one glass and men two glasses. If you have a history of breast cancer in the family, know that any alcohol consumption raises that risk. In that case, talk to your doctor to find out what’s right for you.
The bottom line
Though there’s not one defined Mediterranean diet, this dietary pattern is generally rich in healthy plant foods and relatively lower in animal foods, with a focus on fish and seafood. It has been associated with numerous health benefits and may help stabilize blood sugar levels, promote heart health, enhance brain function, and more.
Best of all, you can adapt the principles of the Mediterranean diet in a way that works for you. If you dislike salmon and sardines but whole wheat pasta and olive oil are your favorites, start building delicious, Mediterranean-inspired meals with foods you love.
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