How healthy is the Mediterranean diet?

Have you been thinking about starting the Mediterranean diet? You are up to something good as this type of diet not only satisfies your taste buds but can also give you a wide range of health benefits.

Among the over 50 popular diets, the Mediterranean way of eating crops up frequently because of what it offers. In fact, it is deemed to be the best diet in some countries. 

With thousands of years of living next to the Mediterranean Sea, its locals have been eating a high-fiber diet that predominantly includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, fish and herbs.

The Mediterranean eating pattern has been known to prevent different diseases, enhance mood, manage weight and even more.

What is a Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet primarily involves eating plant-based foods and healthy fats. It is not about restrictions, formulas or calculations but instead an overall eating pattern that can guide dieters into eating the right set of foods [1]. 

As the name implies, the diet is influenced by eating patterns in many Mediterranean countries. The selected foods recommended in the Mediterranean diet are pretty flexible and tailored to fit your specific goals, like weight management or health improvements. 

Healthy foods to eat in the Mediterranean diet

Generally, following a Mediterranean diet requires you to have a daily intake of: 

  • Whole grains like millet, quinoa, brown rice and whole-wheat bread 
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Beans, legumes, nuts and lentils 
  • Herbs and spices

In this kind of diet, extra virgin olive oil is your primary source of healthy fat; hence, it is advisable to eat plenty of it. You can also eat foods that are naturally rich in healthy fats, like avocados, nuts and oily fish like salmon and sardines. 

Healthy foods to eat in the Mediterranean diet

Moderate intake of cheese and yogurt as dairy products is also promoted in the Mediterranean diet.

There are little to no sweets and sugary drinks allowed, and an addition of a small amount of wine to meals – two glasses a day for men and one glass a day for women. Water should also be the main daily beverage.

Moreover, in terms of protein, fish and poultry are preferable with at least twice a week intake.

Fish, along with walnuts, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can boost overall health. Plus, as much as possible, there should be no meat; if you eat red meats, they should be in smaller portions for only a few days a week [2]. 

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How much to eat? 

Unlike other types of diet, the Mediterranean diet is vague when it comes to eating foods in portions.

Some specify the food amounts, but generally, there are no recommended portions because they are adjusted to your specific body goals. 

Also, the portions of recommended foods depend on each individual’s day-to-day physical activity and body weight or size.

Medical conditions, allergies, preferences and medical history are also some of the other factors one must consider before determining the diet portions.

The good news is you can always consult a dietitian to customize a Mediterranean diet that works particularly for you. 

7 Health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Aside from gaining its title “the best diet” in the US for three consecutive years [3], the Mediterranean diet also boasts of helping people have a longer lifespan.

A study published in 2020 by the BMJ journal Gut revealed that eating the Mediterranean diet for only a year can modify the microbiome of elderly people in ways that enhance their brain function and aid in longevity [4]. 

Furthermore, the study found that the Mediterranean diet can inhibit the production of inflammatory chemicals, which can cause loss of cognitive function. The diet can also help prevent the development of chronic diseases, including:

  • Heart diseases like stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Depression
  • Bone issues
  • Types of cancer

1. Reduces the risk of heart disease

The Mediterranean diet is found to be beneficial to heart health, especially in reducing the risk of certain heart diseases like stroke.

In an experimental study, the researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial for five years among 7,000 women and men who used to have type 2 diabetes or a high risk of cardiovascular disease.

The subjects were divided into three groups which followed slightly different versions of the Mediterranean diet. 

In the end, it was shown that the participants who consumed the Mediterranean diet with no calorie restriction and supplemented with olive oil or nuts had a lower risk of heart issues by 30 percent. However, note that the researchers did not advise the participants to do physical activity [5].

Furthermore, the Mediterranean diet can lower the stroke risk in women. One study worked on identifying the benefits of a Mediterranean diet in lowering the risk of stroke and found out that the more a woman eats the Mediterranean diet, the lower her risk of having a stroke.

The results were found after a careful study of 23,232 men and women aged 40 to 77 who lived in the United Kingdom [6]. 

2. Manages type 2 diabetes

Interestingly, the Mediterranean diet has received multiple gold awards because of its ability to reduce the risk of diabetes.

A study was conducted involving a randomized subgroup consisting of 418 people ages 55 to 80 who are non-diabetic in order to find if the Mediterranean diet can truly help in lowering the risk of developing diabetes. 

After four years of following the participants, the researchers found that those who incorporated the Mediterranean diet into their lifestyle had lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by 52 percent.

Moreover, the participants did not lose weight nor exercise more than their usual physical activity before the study [7].

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3. Helps with weight loss and maintenance 

With its focus on whole, fresh foods, the Mediterranean diet has the potential to help you lose weight safely, healthily and sustainably.

However, it may not give you fast results, but it is still an effective weight loss strategy as it helps discipline your body in eating the right foods

To prove the claim, a randomized cross-over trial was conducted and explained that the Mediterranean diet can help weight loss and maintain a healthy weight because of the eating pattern involving fish and other animal products, oil and nuts. However, when eaten in large quantities, it may work against weight loss [8]. 

4. Prevents cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease

Many health experts believe that what we eat directly impacts the brain as we age, which is also scientifically backed up.

With this, the Mediterranean diet is known to help fight the decline of memory and thinking skills over time [9]. 

Particularly, the Mediterranean diet is found to reduce the risk of developing dementia. The diet is heart-healthy, low in saturated fats and rich in fruits and vegetables and other whole foods, which makes it a great help in preventing dementia [10]. 

Prevents cognitive decline

Furthermore, a study looked at the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive function, and discovered that there is promising evidence that higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet is linked to improved cognition, slowed cognitive decline or reduced development of Alzheimer’s disease [11]. 

5. May ease depression

By simply following a simple eating pattern of a Mediterranean diet, you may actually enhance your mental health. How come? 

According to an analysis of over 41 observational studies, the Mediterranean diet is linked to a lower incidence of depression.

A pooled data from four longitudinal studies discovered that the Mediterranean diet can decrease the risk of depression by 33 percent, in comparison to participants who followed a pro-inflammatory diet, which focuses on processed meats, sugar and trans fats [12]. 

6. Helps with rheumatoid arthritis 

Following the Mediterranean diet can also ease rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease causing the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack the joints. People with arthritis may feel frequent pain and swelling in and around their joints. 

The Mediterranean diet’s selected foods, as rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, may help relieve arthritis’ symptoms. Moreover, research suggests that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish can help relieve arthritis’ symptoms on top of medication. 

7. Can protect the body against cancer

Cancer is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, and by simply following the Mediterranean diet, you can reduce your risk of developing it. 

A Mediterranean diet meal plan is helpful in preventing certain types of cancer. In a systematic review and meta-analysis, the researchers suggest that the Mediterranean diet can lower the risk of cancers, particularly:

  • breast cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • head and neck cancers

Plus, the diet can aid in preventing death among cancer survivors.

The bottom line

So, the question of ‘how healthy is the Mediterranean diet’ is simply calculable to the health benefits the diet provides. It is an amazing diet that can increase your longevity as follows: 

  • When adopted at age 20 by both males and females – it may increase life expectancy by 13.0 and 10.7 years, respectively.
  • When adopted at age 40 by both males and females – it may increase life expectancy by 11.7 and 10.0 years, respectively. 
  • When adopted at age 60 by both males and females – it may increase life expectancy by 8.8 and 8.0 years, respectively. 
  • When adopted at age 80 by both males and females – it may increase life expectancy to 3.4 years for both sexes.
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[1] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/mediterranean-diet
[2] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16037-mediterranean-diet 
[3] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/17/health/mediterranean-diet-microbiome-wellness/
[4] https://gut.bmj.com/content/69/7/1218 
[5] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1200303 
[6] https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/STROKEAHA.117.020258 
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3005482/pdf/zdc14.pdf 
[8] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07315724.2020.1869625
[9] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2794208
[10] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/mediterranean-diet-may-slow-development-alzheimers-disease 
[11] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2016.00022/full 
[12] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-018-0237-8 

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