The Mediterranean diet is not a single diet but rather an eating pattern that takes inspiration from the diet of southern European countries. There is an emphasis on plant foods, olive oil, fish, poultry, beans, and grains.
The diet draws together the common food types and healthful habits from the traditions of several different regions, including Greece, Spain, southern France, Portugal, and Italy.
Studies suggest that people who live in the Mediterranean area or follow the Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of various diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. They are also more likely to enjoy a longer life than people in other regions.
Key ingredients of the diet include fresh fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats, oily fish, a moderate intake of dairy, and a low consumption of meat and added sugar. Studies have linked these factors with positive health outcomes.
There is no single definition of the Mediterranean diet, but one group of scientists used the following as their 2015 basis of research.
Vegetables: Include 3 to 9 servings a day.
Fresh fruit: Up to 2 servings a day.
Cereals: Mostly whole grain from 1 to 13 servings a day.
Oil: Up to 8 servings of extra virgin (cold pressed) olive oil a day.
Fat — mostly unsaturated — made up 37% of the total calories. Unsaturated fat comes from plant sources, such as olives and avocado. The Mediterranean diet also provided 33 grams (g) of fiber a day.
The baseline diet for this study provided around 2,200 calories a day.
Here are some examples of ingredients that people often include in the Mediterranean diet.
Vegetables: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, leafy green vegetables, plus others.
Fruits: Melon, apples, apricots, peaches, oranges, and lemons, and so on.
Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and cashews.
Unsaturated fat: Olive oil, sunflower oil, olives, and avocados.
Dairy products: Cheese and yogurt are the main dairy foods.
Cereals: These are mostly whole grain and include wheat and rice with bread accompanying many meals.
Fish: Sardines and other oily fish, as well as oysters and other shellfish.
Poultry: Chicken or turkey.
Eggs: Chicken, quail, and duck eggs.
Drinks: A person can drink red wine in moderation.
The Mediterranean diet does not include strong liquor or carbonated and sweetened drinks. According to one definition, the diet limits red meat and sweets to less than 2 servings per week.
The focus on plant foods and fresh produce means that the Mediterranean diet contains many essential nutrients and food groups, such as:
Healthful fats: The diet is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat. Health experts recommend limiting the intake of saturated fats to avoid high cholesterol, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Fiber: A diet that includes a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, alongside whole grains and legumes is high in fiber. Fiber promotes healthy digestion and appears to reduce the risk of bowel cancer and cardiovascular disease. It may also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Learn more here about the benefits of dietary fiber.
Vitamins and minerals: Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins and minerals, which are necessary for the body’s healthy functioning. Also, lean meats provide vitamin B-12, which is scarce in an entirely plant-based diet. Click here to learn more about various nutrients, and why we need them. /articles/160774.php
Antioxidants: Antioxidants include vitamins, minerals, and other molecules that can help remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals are toxic molecules that can build up as a byproduct of metabolism and other processes. They can cause damage that can lead to cancer and other diseases. Dietary antioxidants help protect the body by removing free radicals, and plant foods are good sources of antioxidants.
Low sugar: Fresh fruits provide natural sugar, but the diet is low in added sugar. Added sugar is high in calories and increases the risk of obesity and its complications. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend limiting intake of added sugar to 6 teaspoons per day for females and 9 teaspoons per day for males. This equates to 24 g and 36 g, respectively. Instead of sugary sweets, people will eat fruit on the Mediterranean diet.
Fruits contain sugar, but fruit is healthful in moderation. Find out here about some healthful choices of fruits.
However, the Mediterranean diet is an overall way of eating rather than a specific meal plan.
The Mediterranean diet is not a weight loss, but increasing fiber intake and cutting out red meat, animal fats, and processed food may lead to weight loss.
People who follow the diet may also have a lower risk of various diseases.
In the 1950s, Dr. Ancel Keys, an American scientist, found that people living in the poorer areas of southern Italy had a lower risk of heart disease and death than those in wealthier parts of New York. Dr. Keys attributed this to diet.
Since then, many studies have indicated that following a Mediterranean diet can help the body maintain healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
The AHA note that the overall pattern of the Mediterranean diet is similar to their own dietary recommendations.
The AHA point out that a high proportion of calories on the diet come from fat, which can increase the risk of obesity. However, they also note that this fat is mainly unsaturated, which makes it a more healthful option than that from the typical American diet.
The AHA also caution that science needs more research to identify whether the benefits of the diet stem from the food people eat or other aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle.
Which foods are good for heart health? Find out here.
Protection from disease
The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods, and these are good sources of antioxidants.
A 2017 review and meta-analysis concluded that the Mediterranean diet might offer protection from various cancers, and especially colorectal cancer. The authors suggest that the reduction in risk may stem from the high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
In 2013, a study linked the antioxidants and fiber content in the Mediterranean diet with good mental and physical health.
Another group of researchers studied health markers for people who had a genetic feature that increased their risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
After a median of 4.8 years consuming a Mediterranean diet, tests showed the participants’ levels of blood glucose and fats had decreased. During this time, there was also a lower incidence of stroke.
The Mediterranean diet may help prevent type 2 diabetes and improve markers of diabetes in people who already have the condition, according to a 2014 study.
Various other studies have concluded that following the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which often occur together.
The author of an article in Diabetes Spectrum notes that both the Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet appear to reduce the risk by around 20%.
There is no specific meal plan for the Mediterranean diet, but the Mediterranean Diet Foundation recommend the following strategy:
According to one researcher, it is not only food but an outlook on life that contributes to the success of the Mediterranean diet.
The author suggests that, as well as a focus on plant-based foods, a philosophy that emphasizes the following is essential:
- moderation and variety
- living in harmony with nature
- valuing relationships with others, including sharing meals and enjoying a chat around the table
- having an active lifestyle, but relaxing after a meal
How can being social affect a person’s wellbeing? Click here to find out.
The following plan shows what a person might eat each day if they follow the Mediterranean diet:
Breakfast: Oatmeal with fruit and nuts.
Lunch: Spinach and feta stuffed salmon.
Afternoon snack: Vegetables with a hummus dip or tzatziki.
Dinner: Mozzarella, chickpea, and tomato salad.
Evening snack: Greek yogurt, perhaps with fruit.
For more ideas about what to eat on the Mediterranean diet, see our dedicated article here.
Is it true that adding a glass of red wine to the daily diet can make a person more healthy?
Red wine in moderation is part of the Mediterranean diet. Some studies have shown alcohol to reduce the risk of heart disease. Although red wine contains flavonoids and other antioxidants linked to reducing heart disease risk, the Dietary Guidelines for Americanscaution against drinking alcohol for potential health benefits. The current recommendations from the AHA are 2 drinks per day for males and 1 drink per day for females.
Natalie Olsen, R.D., L.D., ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.