Mediterranean Diet: Foods, Benefits & Risks

The Mediterranean diet has long been considered the peak of healthy eating, with those around the Mediterranean sea experiencing lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer than those in the US.  Mediterranean countries also have a higher life expectancy, with Spain having one of the highest in the world at 83.2 versus 78.5 in the US. This is thought to be due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of a diet high in starchy, fibrous foods, vegetables and fish.  

The main characteristics of the Mediterranean diet are that it is low in saturated fat, sugar and heavily processed foods, which are similar to the healthy living guidelines laid out by the USDA. There is evidence (opens in new tab)that the Mediterranean diet can contribute to effective weight loss too. Fresh, fibrous foods and diets high in lean protein are generally quite filling, which can help with maintenance of a healthy weight.

So, what are the main components of the Mediterranean diet? And what benefits can be gained from incorporating the principles of the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle? 

What is the Mediterranean diet?

Specific components of the Mediterranean diet vary from region to region, but the overall principles remain the same:

  • More starchy foods, such as bread or pasta, preferably whole grain.
  • More lean protein, such as fish.
  • More unsaturated fats, such as olive oil.
  • More fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables high in  fibre. 
  • Less processed foods.
  • Less red meat – try replacing red meat with plant-based protein sources such as legumes. 
  • Everything in moderation. You can still enjoy processed or fast foods, just not too often.

Dr Federica Amati, an AfN registered nutritionist and chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements (opens in new tab), explains another core principle of the Mediterranean diet. 

“An important factor in the Mediterranean diet is the quality of the food, made up of seasonal fresh produce and completely absent in ultra-processed foods like ready meals or prepared sauces,” she says. “Pizza is slow leavened sourdough made with whole grain and topped with fresh tomatoes and herbs, and pasta is of the high protein durum wheat variety served with plenty of vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and eaten sociably with family or friends. The Mediterranean diet is as much about quality as it is about the components of the diet themselves.” 

Benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Cancer prevention

Studies (opens in new tab) have indicated that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant (carotenoids and lycopene) rich foods that make up the Mediterranean diet can help to decrease the risk of developing some cancers. 

Amati advises to enjoy extra virgin olive oil every day. “The research around the health benefits that come from daily consumption of extra virgin olive oil is overwhelming,” she says. “We now understand more about the pathways through which it acts as an antioxidant and improves inflammation. Drizzle on your salads, pastas, fish and meat dishes but make sure it’s the extra virgin kind and not the blended ‘olive oils’ that don’t retain any of the nutritional benefits.”

The lower intake of meat and dairy associated with the Mediterranean diet in particular can be beneficial for preventing a range of cancers. Animal products, often rich in saturated fats and cooked at high temperatures, can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer, stomach cancer and prostate cancer in particular. 

Cardiovascular health

As the Mediterranean diet is lower in saturated fat than the average American diet, evidence (opens in new tab)suggests it can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. High consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes also positively impact cardiometabolic risk, according to one 2015 study (opens in new tab). The combination of these factors can not only reduce your potential risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but might even reduce its burden and improve health in those who already have it. 

The impact of the Mediterranean diet on other cardiovascular factors, such as hip-waist ratio, lipids and inflammatory markers is overwhelmingly positive, making it a wise choice for those at risk or experiencing cardiovascular disease. 

Maintaining a healthy weight

While the Mediterranean diet has shown real results in both cancer prevention and cardiovascular health, both of these are often impacted by overall the weight of individuals. One 2015 study showed that in adults aged 55-75, the diet was particularly effective in reducing abdominal fat in younger participants with higher BMIs. 

Satiety is an important factor for healthy weight loss, and the presence of high-fibre foods such as cruciferous vegetables, legumes and whole grains in the Mediterranean diet can help you to feel fuller and satisfied for longer periods of time. Controlling hunger is an effective way to reduce overeating, contributing to effective weight loss or healthy weight maintenance.

Environmental impact

As well as the positive impact that the Mediterranean diet has on health, studies suggest it is also more sustainable. The focus on fresh, seasonal foods and lower meat consumption makes it more environmentally friendly than the average American diet, according to a 2017 study.

Amati recommends combining your plant-based sources, as  we should be aiming to eat 30 different plant-based foods a week. “Using pulses and beans together with whole grains ensures there’s enough protein in plant-based meals to feel satiated, as well as eating nuts and seeds,” she explains. “Use seasonal vegetables and fruits, as well as grains, legumes, spices, nuts and seeds.”

  • Related: Why some plant-based diets are healthier than others

How to follow a Mediterranean diet

Following the principles laid out above is a good place to start if you want to start eating a Mediterranean diet. Focusing on lowering your intake of meat and dairy and increasing your consumption of starchy foods, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables will help you begin to adapt your diet to a more Mediterranean way of eating.

Amati also recommends variety. “Eating a combination of foods every day helps to support our body’s immune and anti-inflammatory functions for a long and healthy life, which is exactly what we see in the evidence for Mediterranean diet studies,” she says. “The key to variety is meals that offer different combinations of nutrients, minerals and flavours every time.” 

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