The Mediterranean Diet deserves attention all year, but it gets some extra love during the month of May, as we celebrate International Mediterranean Diet Month. The Mediterranean diet food pyramid was created in 1993 by Oldways, a food and nutrition education nonprofit, in partnership with Harvard Medical School and the World Health Organization.
Although the official named diet has existed for less than 30 years, it’s the same plant-forward, seafood and olive oil-rich diet that people in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea have eaten forever. And the more this diet pattern is researched, the more nutrition experts are convinced – the best way to reclaim our health is to get back to basics and eat like our ancestors.
How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet
The most attractive thing about this diet is that it’s not really a “diet.” Rather, it’s a flexible, long-term, healthy eating pattern that’s focused on whole foods, instead anything packaged or processed. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are the food groups to eat most often (daily or even at each meal), followed by whole grains, nuts or seeds, and fish. Of course, olive oil is used in cooking and even as a condiment.
Foods to eat less frequently (a few times each week) include poultry, cheese, Greek yogurt, or other dairy foods. As long as you eat unprocessed foods, nothing is really off-limits. Even red wine and good-quality bread are stables in the diet. The only foods that are limited or reserved for or special occasions only are red meat and desserts or sugary foods.
There’s also a big emphasis on being more physically active and connecting with others. Meals shouldn’t be eaten alone, on the run, but around the table – with friends, family, and good conversation. Really, the Mediterranean diet is as much a way of eating as it is a more balanced lifestyle.
The Many Health Benefits
Most people associate the Mediterranean diet with less heart disease. Indeed, it’s been shown to improve cholesterol, reduce vascular inflammation and blood pressure, and yes – lower the risk of heart disease. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association when people with existing coronary heart disease adopted the Mediterranean diet, even they had a less recurrent heart disease and a lower risk of death from all causes (1).
It’s clear that anyone who is at risk for heart disease should be eating this way. However, there are many other benefits that come from the Mediterranean diet. Some of these include:
1. Better diabetes management
People with diabetes who stick to this diet tend to have a lower A1c level, as well as a better lipid profile, and lower blood pressure, and BMI. Interestingly, eating a Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil (as opposed to a low-fat version of the diet) might also delay the need for glucose lowering medications (2,3).
2. Minimizes depression
3. Better brain function
Cognitive function declines with age, but when young adults start eating a Mediterranean diet in their 20s, they perform better on a variety of cognitive function tests in midlife, compared to people who eat a standard American diet, or even the DASH diet. Similar results have been seen in older adults (70 years+) who started the diet pattern in midlife (6,7).
The Mediterranean diet also reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In those with the disease, it seems to slow the progression by slowing beta-amyloid accumulation in the brain (8).
4. Reduce inflammation
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system is overstimulated by inflammation and begins attacking healthy tissues instead of harmful invaders. The anti-inflammatory effects of the diet have been studied in several autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases. Although diet can’t sure them, research supports an inverse association between the adherence to the Mediterranean diet and severity and progression of many autoimmune diseases (9,10,11).
5. May improve fertility
According to the National Infertility Association, one in eight couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. The Mediterranean diet might help reduce this statistic. Studies have found it can improve the odds of a successful pregnancy IVF, and it’s linked with better sperm quality (12,13).
The Bottom Line
Although it’s well-known for being heart-healthy, the Mediterranean diet is also beneficial for preventing and managing a very wide range of health conditions. Thus, this is one diet pattern nutrition professionals should be talking to all consumers about. It’s flexible, easy to stick to (even when dining out), and downright delicious, so it’s a way of eating that can make everyone healthier.
Dietary patterns and Mediterranean diet score and hazard of recurrent coronary heart disease events and all-cause mortality in the REGARDS study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30005552/
Mediterranean diet linked with better health in people with type 2 diabetes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6115857/
Effects of Mediterranean eating plan on the need for glucose-lowering medications in participants with type 2 diabetes: a subgroup analysis of the PREDIMED trial. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31182491/
Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6755986/
Mediterranean-type diet is associated with higher psychological resilience in a general adult population: findings from the Moli-sani study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28952609/
Dietary patterns during adulthood and cognitive performance in midlife: The CARDIA study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30842290/
Dietary pattern in midlife and cognitive impairment in late life: a prospective study in Chinese adults. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31374567/
Mediterranean diet adherence and rate of cerebral aβ-amyloid accumulation: data from the Australian imaging, biomarkers and lifestyle study of ageing. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30375373/
The effects of the Mediterranean diet on rheumatoid arthritis prevention and treatment: a systematic review of human prospective studies. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29256100/
Association between Mediterranean anti-inflammatory dietary profile and severity of psoriasis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6143029/
The role of diet in prevention and treatment of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6502201/
Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and IVF Success Rate Among Non-Obese Women Attempting Fertility. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29390148/
Dietary patterns, foods and nutrients in male fertility parameters and fecundability: a systematic review of observational studies. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28333357/