15 Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, According to Science

Potentially the world’s healthiest way of eating, the Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods that were consumed by populations in Italy and Greece throughout history. The diet emphasizes produce, fish, whole grains, and health fats – encouraging a high intake of fiber, moderate consumption of meats and alcohol, and tons of antioxidants. Followers of this diet will also enjoy meals with their loved ones – cooking as a family, eating as a family, and sharing a glass of red wine after dinner as a family.

Eating plenty of fresh, non-starchy produce is key to the Mediterranean diet. You’ll want to shoot for at least five servings each day, with each serving being approximately one cup of raw produce. Healthy fats are also encouraged – coming from things like olive oil, nuts, fish, and avocado.

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Legumes not only contain a ton of these necessary fats, but add a hefty boost of protein – and lean protein from non-meat sources is another cornerstone of this diet. To follow the Mediterranean diet as recommended, aim to eat a serving of legumes (a half-cup, cooked) at least twice a week, and a small handful of nuts every day.

Protein from fish and eggs is also encouraged – two to three times each week. Dairy protein, derived from milk products like yogurt and fresh cheeses, should be consumed daily. Try to get one to three servings of dairy, one cup of milk or yogurt or one ounce of cheese. Lean meats and poultry are welcome in the diet, but these are to be enjoyed in moderation.

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Carbohydrates are included in this diet, as well. Refined carbs, however, are discouraged – as these will cause issues with your blood sugar. Aim for four small portions of whole grain carbs each day – whole-wheat bread, pasta made from quinoa, or sprouted or fermented grains. These should always be consumed with healthy fats and protein, to ensure proper digestion and nutrient absorption.

You should also enhance your meals with fresh herbs and spices, which are full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Drink plenty of water, but also coffee, tea, and even a glass of red wine each day.

Where did it come from?

This diet is a nutritional model based on the lifestyle of the people of the Mediterranean throughout their history – preserving their traditions and customs and encouraging things like seasonal eating, ethical choices, and even sustainable development. This area of the world is known by historians as “the cradle of society,” since it is within this region that the majority of ancient civilization took place.

As a diet, this model began increasing in popularity with Western societies after the 1950s. An American scientist, Ancel Keys, noticed that poor populations in the small towns of southern Italy were somehow healthier than most of New York’s wealthiest citizens. To determine how this was possible, Keys embarked on a study to determine the relationship between these populations to their diets – and the nutritional value of the foods the Mediterranean people were consuming.

In fact, this study inspired the first “Food Pyramid” released by the United States Department of Agriculture – a guideline developed to represent a fair and balanced way of eating. However, the processed and refined alternatives to the natural foods consumed by Mediterranean populations changed the way the diet impacted Western eaters.

The more modern concept behind the Mediterranean diet recognizes the havoc these foods can wreak on our bodies, and encourages healthier, more natural options – similar to those that would have been used by the ancient Mediterranean civilizations.

What foods can I eat on this diet?

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The bulk of your diet should include natural, unprocessed Mediterranean foods. This diet is very unrestrictive, and you’ll be able to enjoy plenty of delicious foods. You might even discover some new favorites!

You should shoot for a wide variety of foods, to ensure that you’re getting a balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Whole, single ingredient foods are essential for making the most of your Mediterranean lifestyle.

Focus on eating:

Produce: Eat plenty of tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, carrots, onions, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, apples, bananas, pears, berries, oranges, and melons.

Nuts and seeds: Each day, eat a handful or more of almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds.

Legumes: This will be a major source of fibre and protein for followers of this diet. Try to eat more beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, and more.

Tubers: These starchy vegetables should be consumed in moderation, but are still an important part of this diet. Enjoy potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and yams.

Whole grains: Avoid refined carbohydrates, but eat small servings of things like whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, and whole grains.

Fish and other seafood: At least twice a week, eat salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, clams, crab, oysters, or mussels.

Poultry: Occasionally, enjoy chicken, duck, turkey, or other birds.

Eggs and dairy: Cheese, yogurt, and eggs are a great source of healthy fats and protein.

Herbs and spices: Accentuate your meals with garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper.

Heathy fats: This is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, so make sure you’re getting plenty of fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocado.

Also, you should be sure to drink plenty of water, as well as a moderate amount of red wine, coffee, and tea. Note that anyone with problems with alcohol consumption should avoid consuming wine, even though it is encouraged with this diet.

What foods should I avoid?

The main foods to stay away from to achieve the full benefits of the Mediterranean diet are foods with added sugars, foods that are heavily processed, and foods containing refined carbohydrates.

– Sodas, candies, ice cream, and anything else that lists sugar as an ingredient.

– Refined grains, including white bread and pasta made from refined wheat.

– Trans fats, which you can find in margarine and other processed foods.

Refined oils, like canola oil, soybean oil, and more.

Processed meat, like sausages and hot dogs.

Highly processed foods, with labels like “low-fat” or “diet,” or anything that has a lengthy list of ingredients with chemical-sounding names.

You will need to learn to read ingredient lists to ensure that you avoid these unhealthy foods, but a good rule to follow is to stay away from things that look like they were made in a factory. Stick to natural, whole foods that actually look like foods.

The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Without having to limit your diet to any extremes, you can enjoy an improved quality of life and increased feelings of well-being thanks to this healthy, nutritious diet. You’ll notice a ton of great benefits once you start eating Mediterranean-style – especially affecting your heart health, brain health, and longevity. These are just some of the ways your body and mind will benefit from eating Mediterranean-diet approved foods.

1. The Mediterranean diet helps protect against type 2 diabetes.

Researchers compared the Mediterranean diet with several other healthy eating plans, including vegetarian, vegan, low-carbohydrate, high-fiber, high-protein, and low-glycemic index diets. In these studies, the Mediterranean diet actually revealed itself to be the more beneficial eating plan for diabetics or individuals with high blood sugar.

According to researchers, the emphasis on foods that are rich in monounsaturated fats and high in fibre like fruits and vegetables, fish, and olive oil is what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy – these have proven to lower blood sugar and cholesterol in diabetics. Replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats shows a positive effect on an individual’s insulin sensitivity.

2. The Mediterranean diet maintains heart health.

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Typically, the incidence of heart disease is considerably lower in Mediterranean countries than in the United States, which can partly be attributed to the dietary choices made by individuals living there. The other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle, including more physical activity and valued social supports are also important in keeping your body – and heart – healthy.

This diet has proven to reduce risks of cardiovascular mortality, primarily due to its positive impacts on “bad” cholesterol – the oxidized low-density lipoproteins that can accumulate in deposits in your arteries. Not only is it the food you’re eating on a Mediterranean diet that helps keep your cardiovascular system strong, it’s also what you’re drinking.

Red wine, which the plan encourages in moderation, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. However, limit consumption to no more than five ounces daily for women or men over the age of 65, or more than ten ounces daily for men under the age of 65.

3. The Mediterranean diet keeps you agile as you age.

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Thanks to all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals you’ll be consuming in abundance on the Mediterranean diet, you’ll benefit from a reduced risk of developing muscle weakness or other indications of increasing frailty. In fact, seniors have shown this risk reduced by up to 70 per cent.

For anyone who plans to maintain an active lifestyle even into later adulthood, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins can be an important way to ensure lasting agility.

4. The Mediterranean diet reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

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Many of the benefits offered by this kind of nutritional plan include improved cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and the overall health of your blood vessels themselves. Together, these benefits work to reduce your risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Research has shown that for seniors, the Mediterranean diet can help protect against cognitive decline – enabling aging adults to preserve their quality of life and limit the burdens of illness, both social and economic. Doctors have long been encouraging patients to adopt healthier eating habits in line with this diet as a possible strategy to address dementia and other cognitive conditions.

5. The Mediterranean diet halves your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

With all of the healthy antioxidants you’ll get from eating a Mediterranean diet, you’ll be able to cut your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease almost in half. These antioxidants, which are found in the fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and seafood dishes encouraged by this eating plan, keep your cells from undergoing the process of oxidative stress, which causes high amounts of damage and can contribute to the development of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

Scientists are still researching the role of nutrition in neuroprotection and neurodegeneration, but so far, studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean diet provides many important benefits for people who show genetic susceptibility or who face environmental factors that will also contribute to these conditions.

6. The Mediterranean diet encourages healthy weight loss.

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The main way this diet helps people lose weight is that it’s easier to stick in the long-term when compared with many other, more restrictive diets. Because you still get to eat most of your favorite foods, you’ll feel satiated and more likely to keep it up.

However, to see maximum weight loss benefits from this nutrition plan, you should expect to follow the Mediterranean diet for at least six months – forever, if you can. Also, incorporate some form of regular physical exercise into your lifestyle, and keep an eye on your portions. While you are encouraged to eat small amounts of breads and carbs on this diet, these can quickly add up if you’re not careful – and sabotage your weight loss goals.

7. The Mediterranean diet helps fight cancer.

Studies have shown that following this kind of eating plan can lead to a reduced risk of developing cancer, and cancer-related mortality. According to research, there is a “probable” protective role that the Mediterranean diet plays when it comes to cancer prevention. As well, studies have indicated a positive association between this lifestyle and specific cancer sites.

In particular, this diet has been especially effective at helping prevent the development of postmenopausal breast cancer – which is very good news, since this type of breast cancer often comes with a poor prognosis.

8. The Mediterranean diet protects cognitive health.

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Not only will following this diet reduce your risk of developing degenerative cognitive conditions like dementia or Parkinson’s, it will actually improve your cognition. Studies indicate that followers of the Mediterranean diet benefit from enhanced memory and superior attention and focus. As well, the diet was associated with significant amelioration to the brain’s language capabilities.

This is certainly important for older adults who hope to fend off dementia, but it’s also great for younger people who want to maintain their brain function throughout their lives. You’ll experience better job performance, a healthier outlook, and considerably enhanced quality of life.

9. The Mediterranean diet encourages relaxation.

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While following a Mediterranean diet, you should also look to adopt other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle – like making mealtime a more social experience and spending more time exercising and getting outside. These activities have a huge impact on your health, more than you might think. You’ll be eating nutritious healthy foods, and benefitting from a more positive lifestyle.

This lifestyle can give you better tools to manage life’s many stresses, leaving you feeling more upbeat, relaxed, and refreshed. Chronic stress can be incredibly damaging to your overall health and well-being, but the Mediterranean diet can help you fight it off. You’ll sleep better, enjoy more energy, and even build more substantial relationships with your loved ones.

10. The Mediterranean diet can enhance your mood.

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People who suffer from mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and even ADHD can enjoy some of the brain-boosting benefits of the Mediterranean diet. These disorders can occur when your brain isn’t getting enough dopamine, which is the chemical responsible for thought processing, body movements, and mood regulation.

However, the healthy fats and probiotic foods included and encouraged through this eating plan help your body produce this chemical – keeping your mood elevated and your brain happy. They’ll also contribute to gut health, which is a major trigger for mood disorders.

While researchers recommend that people continue with regular treatment programs, switching up your diet to adopt a Mediterranean lifestyle can be a fantastic supplement to traditional therapies. With time, you may find that you no longer require pharmacological interference.

11. The Mediterranean diet fights inflammation.

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Studies investigating the impact of a Mediterranean diet on inflammation biomarkers in high-risk individuals revealed that this kind of nutrition plan can reduce and regulate these markers – controlling inflammation within the body and preventing the many concerns and conditions that may arise from chronic inflammation.

Since a major trigger for inflammation is your body’s exposure to oxidative stress, the high concentration of antioxidants found in foods encouraged by the Mediterranean diet can make a huge impact on this system. You can take advantage of this impact even more by upping your intake of foods containing choline, which is found in egg yolks and soybeans, and betaine, which can be found in vegetables like beets and spinach.

12. The Mediterranean diet improves the health of your skin.

Dieticians will tell you that what the Mediterranean diet can do for your health, it can do for your skin. The health of your skin is crucial to your overall well-being, since this is your body’s major defense against the outside world. Sticking to the Mediterranean diet can help you enjoy glowing, radiant skin.

This eating plan encourages tons of olive oil, which is full of vitamin E and antioxidants that work to hydrate and nourish your skin. Red wine, which is recommended in moderation, contains resveratrol, which can even inhibit the growth of acne-causing bacteria. And tomatoes, another Mediterranean staple, helps protect skin cells – even helping prevent cancer caused by sun exposure.

13. The Mediterranean diet can relieve pain.

Staple foods of the Mediterranean diet, including magnesium-rich whole grains and high-fiber fruits and vegetables, can be included as a valuable part of your approach to pain management. Particularly for individuals who deal with chronic pain, this nutritional plan is a great way to reduce your dependence on pain-killers – which often come with a host of unpleasant side effects and could even lead to an addiction.

However, because this diet is so effective at reducing inflammation and relieving stress, you will see a big difference in how your body responds to pain. And thanks to the benefit of healthy weight loss, you may find that after a few months on the Mediterranean diet, your chronic pain could be a thing of the past.

To maximize the pain relieving benefit of this diet by boosting your intake of foods with magnesium, which is a mineral that has proven to fight muscle pain in several animal studies. This means eating more dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fish, beans and lentils, whole grains, and even dark chocolate.

14. The Mediterranean diet can improve fertility.

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Through a study of nearly 500 women, researchers discovered that those who consumed greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, fish, and whole grains revealed increased fertility – even women who had previously struggled to become pregnant. While doctors will admit that more research needs to be done to see what kind of impact this diet has on a woman’s fertility, it is recommended that women who are hoping to conceive follow a diet similar to the Mediterranean eating plan.

Men can also benefit from consuming more antioxidant rice foods – mangoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots can help men develop heathier sperm, which will also help increase a couple’s chances of conceiving.

15. The Mediterranean diet increases your longevity.

Mortality statistics from 1960 to 1990 have offered “intriguing evidence” regarding the beneficial health of the people who live in the Mediterranean – and much of this research has pointed to their nutritious diet as the major factor behind this lifelong health. According to a study published in 2000, a diet that “adheres to the principles” of the traditional Mediterranean diet “is associated with longer survival.”

Not only that, but living your life according to Mediterranean tradition can make you considerably happier – thanks to your increased physical activity and strong, lasting social connections. Having something to live for tends to make people stick around longer, so it can be assumed that this kind of lifestyle lends itself well to increased longevity.

What should I keep in mind when starting this diet?

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For those considering adopting the Mediterranean diet, congratulations! You’re well on your way to achieving a number of valuable health benefits and increased longevity – and you’ll be eating delicious, healthy meals with your friends and loved ones.

This is a great lifestyle for anyone to commit to, but there are a few things for you to keep in mind as you begin your journey to living the Mediterranean way. These tips will help you stay on track and quickly learn what it takes to maintain this healthy lifestyle.

– Pasta and bread are not your main course.

While this diet does allow you to continue consuming carbohydrates, keep in mind that Mediterranean people don’t indulge in massive bowls of bread and pasta the way Westerners do. Instead, these dishes are just supplementary parts of the meal. You won’t get the many benefits from this diet if you continue eating large helpings of carbs, which will cause your blood sugar to spike and lead to increased health concerns.

A typical Mediterranean plate will feature a heaping portion of vegetables and salad, a small portion of lean protein, a half-cup to one cup of pasta, and, occasionally, a piece of bread. Focus on real whole grains to benefit from the protein, fiber, and magnesium in these essential carbohydrates.

– It isn’t as expensive as you might think.

Often, people are discouraged from adopting this diet because of what they imagine will bring an added expense. However, when you’re eating more beans and legumes instead of pricier meats, and bulking up your meals with vegetables and whole grains, you’ll actually end up saving money – instead of spending your food budget on packaged foods or fast food.

With some solid meal planning, you’ll even be able to buy frequently used items in bulk – like olive oil, brown rice, and vegetables. Lots of these dry ingredients have a long shelf life, and extra vegetables can always be frozen and thawed out for later consumption. There are tons of ways to make this diet work for any budget, so don’t let things like an imagined expense keep you from making healthy changes.

– Ensure ongoing success by eliminating temptations.

This diet isn’t very restrictive, but you do need to stay away from unhealthy, processed foods if you want to achieve the full health benefits that the Mediterranean diet has to offer. This is a pretty general rule that can help you maintain any lifestyle change, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind whenever you’re embarking on a healthy diet plan.

Before stocking your kitchen with healthy, Mediterranean diet-approved foods, take time to go through your cupboards and clear out any processed junk that doesn’t add to your new lifestyle. These foods will only serve to derail you, so get rid of them by donating them to food banks or giving them to a shelter. Then, head to the grocery store with your shopping list and purchase the items that will support your healthy diet.

Also, if alcohol is a temptation for you, you should avoid including this aspect of the Mediterranean diet. While alcohol, in particular red wine, is encouraged in moderation, if limiting yourself is a problem, it’s better to keep it out of your diet entirely rather than risk frequent overindulgence – or even developing a problem.

– This is a lifestyle change.

While the food is a huge part of this diet, living your life in the Mediterranean style encompasses much more than just that. Don’t sit down for a meal in front of the television – sit with your family and friends to enjoy a leisurely dinner. This connection and relaxed dining experience is probably equally important for your health.

Not only will you enjoy the company of your loved ones, you’ll eat more slowly and savor each bite. This will help you learn to understand your body’s signals – so you’ll be more likely to eat when you’re hungry and recognize that you should stop eating when you’re full. You’ll understand how to eat until you’re satisfied, instead of until when your plate is clean.

Mediterranean people also benefit from plenty of exercise, so ensure that you’re getting enough physical activity each day. Park further away from your office or from the store, take the stairs whenever possible, and aim to spend at least twenty minutes a day doing exercise you enjoy.

How can I get started?

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Since this diet is fairly unrestrictive, it’s easy to make the switch to eating Mediterranean-style. However, coming up with recipes can sometimes be challenging, especially if you’re not used to spending much time in the kitchen. Still, since this diet is all about eating whole, unprocessed foods, most Mediterranean diet recipes are fairly simple and easy to follow, even for inexperienced chefs.

These suggested recipes can help get you started on the Mediterranean diet, and will hopefully inspire you to come up with some recipes of your own. Head to the grocery store to grab these ingredients, and see if you can find other similar items to support your new lifestyle. Keep in mind that you should be shopping around the outside edges of the store – avoiding the inside aisles that will be full of processed foods and other junk.

Breakfast

Lunch

Dinner