The Mediterranean diet has been a mainstay of popular dietary trends for more than 50 years. It’s received plenty of attention in the media. There’s also generous research in support of the Mediterranean diet for reducing overall disease risk. For example, conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, asthma and obesity can all be helped using a Mediterranean diet approach. In fact, this diet has gained the coveted spot of best overall diet in a recent U.S. survey reviewing several popular modern diets.
So, why is it so great? When you look at the data, it’s clear to see why it’s had such staying power when other nutrition advice has risen and fallen. Here, we take a good look at the Mediterranean diet and learn just why it’s so healthy for you.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
In the 1950’s, American physiologist Ancel Keys postulated the idea that polyunsaturated fat consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular heart disease. This hypothesis arose from the observation that rural populations in Southern Italy were healthier overall compared to wealthy, affluent New York locals. Keys’ ongoing research went on to confirm the link between dietary choices and heart disease. These findings became part of the foundational guidelines as to what constitutes a ‘healthy diet’. Nowadays, the cardioprotective qualities of foods from the Mediterranean form the basis of a modern Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.
The Mediterranean diet is a broad dietary approach, taking inspiration from people who live near the Mediterranean Sea. It’s largely based on foods naturally found in countries like France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta and sprinkles from Portugal, The Balkans and North Africa. A modern version of this diet is a celebration of foods that come from these areas, and is represented well in the Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid.
The good news is, this diet isn’t super complicated. The dominant features are fresh fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, and seafood. Some red meat and animal proteins are also included. With a focus on foods naturally high in antioxidants and plant polyphenols, the Mediterranean diet can certainly be described as anti-inflammatory. This is the central reason why it’s so supportive in maintaining optimal health, offering prevention from most chronic conditions.
What Makes It So Healthy?
One obvious reason is that it’s a diet that makes use of quality, unprocessed foods delivered by nature. Foods that come from the earth, land and sea should always form the basis of any healthy diet. Importantly, there are some star players that confer some serious health benefits that are naturally found in the Mediterranean region.
Another factor is the clear absence of commercially processed, nutrient-poor foods in a Mediterranean-type diet. Feeling satisfied from a meal has a lot to do with the quality of fat and protein it contains. By consuming high quality fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates, the Mediterranean diet helps reduce cravings for less healthy foods, which ultimately improves your health span.
Some nutrients that are abundant in the Mediterranean diet include:
- Antioxidants: Quercetin, Kaempferol, Allicin, Hesperidin
- Vitamin C
- Omega 3 & Omega 6
- Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Calcium
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin A
Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods
If your plate is full of good things, there’s less room for foods that shouldn’t be there. High-nutrient foods should always come first. Here’s a good list of food to include in a typical Mediterranean diet:
- Fruits: olives, berries, apples, bananas, pears, grapes, dates, melons, figs
- Vegetables: tomatoes, capsicums, artichokes, kale, spinach, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, broccoli
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, nut butters, almond butter, peanut butter
- Seeds: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pepitas, chia seeds
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, peas, split peas, beans
- Whole grains: oats, brown rice, barley, corn, rye, wholemeal pasta and bread
- Herbs & spices: rosemary, basil, thyme, mint, sage, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, pepper
- Oily Fish & Seafood: salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, tuna, prawns, oysters, mussels, clams, crab
- Healthy Fats: Extra virgin olive oil, avocados
- Water (do you drink enough?)
- Poultry, Eggs, Cheese, Yoghurt
- Red Wine
- Red Meat
- Added sugar: sweets, treats, softdrinks, processed foods
- Refined oils and fats: canola oil, margarine
What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
Essentially, the Mediterranean diet is an approach that can significantly improve any chronic lifestyle disease imagininable. The evidence suggests that it can help a range of conditions. Here’s a summary of why the Mediterranean diet is so beneficial to health:
- Supports weight management
- Helps regulate cholesterol
- Supports cardiovascular health
- Reduces frequency and onset of asthma and allergies
- Promotes brain health and cognition
The Mediterranean Diet Supports Cardiovascular Health
The notorious PREDIMED study is a long-term clinical trial that has a large participant cohort. The aims of this study were to evaluate the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on various clinical and health outcomes.
Consuming a Mediterranean diet can alleviate symptoms associated with obesity, high cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes. All of these conditions together represent what’s called metabolic syndrome. This is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Interestingly, the results from a 1-year follow up from this study showed that several components of the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Without any change in physical activity, the 1224 older participants in this study all consumed a diet high in extra virgin olive oil and mixed nuts. Conclusively, this dietary approach was found to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease in a group of high-risk individuals. Nuts and olive oil are fundamental components of the Mediterranean diet, with significant benefits to cardiovascular health.
Another famous study from the late 90’s, known as the Lyon Diet Heart Study examined whether a Mediterranean-style diet reduced the rate of recurrence of an initial heart attack.
The results demonstrated a long-term protective effect, at 27 months of follow-up. At the end of the analysis, the authors stated that a prolonged protective effect from the Mediterranean dietary intervention was observed. Importantly, this finding was ‘maintained up to 4 years after the first infarction’. In terms of health outcomes, these findings provide an important underpinning that the Mediterranean diet is a cardioprotective diet.
The Mediterranean Diet Promotes Brain Health
This dietary approach has also been dubbed as an important diet for maintaining brain health. A recent 2021 study involving 169 elderly participants with a high Alzheimer’s disease risk was published in the journal, Neurology. The authors determined that a Mediterranean-like diet was protective against memory decline, Alzheimer’s disease onset and associated brain atrophy.
In 2017, a meta-analysis confirming similar findings was published. Of the 15 cohort studies and 2 randomised clinical trials, including over 40000 participants, some interesting results were revealed. Globally, cognitive function, attention, memory and executive function were all significantly improved in those consuming a Mediterranean-style diet. Importantly, the high consumption of plant foods, nuts, seeds and oily fish appears to be neuroprotective in these studies.
Also, It’s Not Just About Food..
Remember, much of the success of this diet is due to it being an all-encompassing lifestyle approach. Incorporating a lifestyle that’s full of healthy foods, moderate exercise, sunshine, good company (and wine) is a sure-fire way to embody the Mediterranean way. While there’s no single version of a Mediterranean diet, the basics can be mastered by anyone, and with that, the health benefits are there for the taking, too.
Spanish Sardines on Toast
Don’t like sardines? Too bad, give this easy and nutritious dish a go and start to like them. Loaded with healthy fats from this oily fish, and a natural source of vitamin D, it’s a zesty, healthy way to eat like a local, on a Mediterranean diet. (Really, they’re not that bad).
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 red chilli (or ¼ tsp. chilli flakes)
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 tin good quality Spanish sardines
- chopped parsley
- fresh chopped tomatoes
- 2 slices toasted sourdough
- Sizzle olive oil, 1 clove garlic, chilli and lemon zest in a pan
- Add 1 tin sardines and heat through
- Stir in small bunch of chopped parsley, lemon juice and chopped tomatoes
- Serve atop 2 slices of toasted sourdough with extra drizzle of olive oil
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