What is the Mediterranean Diet?
Maybe you’ve heard about this diet but you’re not really sure what it means. After all, the Mediterranean region stretches from Spain and North Africa to Greece and the Middle East. The region has a lot of culinary diversity and while there is no one right way to follow a Mediterranean Diet, traditional diets of this region share many similarities and incorporate many of the same healthy foods.
The Mediterranean Diet is based on observations of the traditional diets of Greece and southern Italy in the 1960s. Researchers noted that populations following these dietary patterns had less chronic disease than other European or American populations.
Over the following decades, the Mediterranean Diet has become the most studied diet in history. The diet may help prevent cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. There are also studies showing that the diet may be beneficial in treating erectile dysfunction, depression, and menopausal symptoms like hot flashes.
The Mediterranean Diet is a whole foods diet, meaning it focuses on unprocessed, natural foods. The diet follows a few basic principles:
- Base your diet on plentiful servings of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains
- Incorporate fish and seafood into the diet regularly
- Include olive oil into all meals
- Eat poultry, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and dairy products in moderation, a few times a week
- Eat red meat and sugar rarely
- Avoid processed and refined carbohydrates, meats, and fats
Mediterranean Diet and Chronic Disease
The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, participants followed the Mediterranean Diet with added olive oil or nuts for almost five years. Participants in the group with added olive oil had a 31% decrease in risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease. Participants in the group with added nuts had a 28% decrease in risk compared to the low-fat diet control group.
In another article published from the same study, researchers found that participants who followed either of the Mediterranean Diet patterns (with added olive oil or nuts) had a 52% reduced risk of developing diabetes.
Where to Start with Mediterranean Diet
Working to incorporate the principles of the Mediterranean Diet may feel challenging for some people. For others, the foods included in this diet do not resonate with their cultural traditions, so the diet may feel inaccessible or irrelevant to them. Oldways (oldwayspt.org) is a great resource for people starting to use this dietary approach. The website includes culturally relevant versions of the Mediterranean Diet for those of African, Asian, and Latin American heritage. This website also includes a section for recipes that follow the Mediterranean-style Diet pattern.
The best way to get started with the Mediterranean Diet is to talk to a physician or nutritionist who can guide you on how to incorporate foods from this approach into your current diet and work toward changing your overall diet pattern. Small additions to the diet, like olive oil and nuts to replace less healthy fats, can have major impacts on your current health and risk of future disease.
- Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J, et al; PREDIMED Study Investigators. Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil or Nuts. N Engl J Med. 2018 Jun 21;378(25):e34. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1800389. Epub 2018 Jun 13. PMID: 29897866.
- Healthline. 2020. Mediterranean Diet 101: A Meal Plan And Beginner’s Guide. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mediterranean-diet-meal-plan> [Accessed 20 November 2020].
- Oldways. 2020. Oldways. [online] Available at: <https://oldwayspt.org/> [Accessed 20 November 2020].
- Salas-Salvadó J, Bulló M, Babio N, et al; PREDIMED Study Investigators. Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with the Mediterranean diet: results of the PREDIMED-Reus nutrition intervention randomized trial. Diabetes Care. 2011 Jan;34(1):14-9. doi: 10.2337/dc10-1288. Epub 2010 Oct 7. Erratum in: Diabetes Care. 2018 Oct;41(10):2259-2260. PMID: 20929998; PMCID: PMC3005482.