The Mediterranean diet is based primarily on the eating habits of southern European countries, with an emphasis on plant foods, olive oil, fish, poultry, beans, and grains.

There is no single Mediterranean diet but the concept draws together the common food types and healthful habits from the traditions of a number of different regions, including Crete, Greece, Spain, southern France, Portugal, and Italy.

More research is needed to confirm the precise benefits of the diet, but it is known to be low in trans fats, and free from refined oils and highly processed meats and foods.

These items have been linked to conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Fast facts about the Mediterranean diet

  • There is no one Mediterranean diet. It consists of foods from a number of countries and regions including Spain, Greece, and Italy.
  • The Mediterranean diet is a great way to replace the saturated fats in the average American diet.
  • There is an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and natural sources.
  • It is linked to good heart health, protection against diseases such as stroke, and prevention of diabetes.
  • Moderation is still advised, as the diet has a high fat content.
  • The Mediterranean diet should be paired with an active lifestyle for the best results.

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The Mediterranean diet is a way to ensure food comes from a range of natural, healthful sources.

The Mediterranean diet consists of:

  • high quantities of vegetables, such as tomatoes, kale, broccoli, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, and onions
  • fresh fruit such as apples, bananas, figs, dates, grapes, and melons.
  • high consumption of legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and cashews
  • whole grains such as whole wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat, corn, and brown rice
  • olive oil as the main source of dietary fat, alongside olives, avocados, and avocado oil
  • cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods, including Greek yogurt
  • moderate amounts of fish and poultry, such as chicken, duck, turkey, salmon, sardines, and oysters
  • eggs, including chicken, quail, and duck eggs
  • limited amounts red meats and sweets
  • around one glass per day of wine, with water as the main beverage of choice and no carbonated and sweetened drinks

This focus on plant foods and natural sources means that the Mediterranean diet contains nutrients such as:

Healthful fats: The Mediterranean diet is known to be low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat. Dietary guidelines for the United States recommend that saturated fat should make up no more than 10 percent of calorie intake.

Fiber: The diet is high in fiber, which promotes healthy digestion and is believed to reduce the risk of bowel cancer and cardiovascular disease.

High vitamin and mineral content: Fruits and vegetables provide vital vitamins and minerals, which regulate bodily processes. In addition, the presence of lean meats provides vitamins such as B-12 that are not found in plant foods.

Low sugar: The diet is high in natural rather than added sugar, for example, in fresh fruits. Added sugar increases calories without nutritional benefit, is linked to diabetes and high blood pressure, and occurs in many of the processed foods absent from the Mediterranean diet.

It is difficult to give exact nutritional information on the Mediterranean diet, since there is no single Mediterranean diet. This is because a variety of cultures and regions is involved.

The Mediterranean diet is not specifically a weight loss diet, but cutting out red meats, animal fats, and processed food may lead to weight loss.

In areas where the diet is consumed, there are lower rates of mortality and heart disease, and other benefits.

Heart health

The American scientist Dr. Ancel Keys started explaining the benefits of the Mediterranean diet in the 1950s, but it did not become popular in the U.S. until the 1990s.

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The Mediterranean diet has been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on heart health.

Dr. Keys found that people living in poorer areas of southern Italy had a lower risk of heart disease and death than those in wealthier parts of New York, and he attributed this to their diet.

While other factors, such as a more active lifestyle, may have impacted this, the reduction in red meats and added sugars have been linked to a low incidence of stroke and coronary heart disease.

Research puts this down to the monounsaturated fats present in the Mediterranean diet, and the focus on fruits and vegetables.

These are said to increase both the concentration and function "good cholesterol," or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in the blood. HDL balances cholesterol and makes it work in defense of the heart.

Protection against diseases

Studies have compared the health risks of developing certain diseases, depending on people's diets. People who adopted the Mediterranean diet have been compared with those who have an American or Northern European diet.

Results suggest that Mediterranean dietary habits help to negate a specific genetic mutation that can lead to a higher risk of stroke, especially if a person carries two copies of the gene.

Wine and olive oil demonstrated antioxidant properties to protect against atherosclerosis, or the hardening of blood vessels, in a 2003 study. Further research is required to confirm this benefit of the diet.

An Italian study has linked the antioxidants and fiber content in the Mediterranean diet with good mental and physical health.

Diabetes

The Mediterranean diet can help protect people from type 2 diabetes and improve glycemic control.

Several studies have shown that those who follow a Mediterranean diet have lower fasting glucose levels that those do not.

The dietary guidelines for those with diabetes as stipulated by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) are very similar to the guidelines for the Mediterranean diet.

As the Mediterranean diet cannot be reduced to one particular meal plan or food group, it is important to follow the guidelines for maximum benefit.

To get started on the Mediterranean diet:

  • Focus on fruits and vegetables and make these the staple of the diet.
  • Eat beans, legumes, nuts, and whole grains daily.
  • Season foods with herbs and spices instead of salt, fat, and sugar.
  • Cook food with olive or avocado oil as standard, instead of butter.
  • Focus on lean proteins, primarily fish, and eat less than 3 ounces of chicken or red meat per week.
  • Limit the intake of sweet and high-sugar foods and base most dessert intake around fruit.

Food should be as fresh and unprocessed as possible. Although the diet contains heahlthful fats, there is still a high fat content, so servings should be moderate for the best results.

A key part of Mediterranean dining culture is eating with others, and sharing healthful, nutritious meals. It is a great way to approach a diet with the support of family or close friends. They can help reinforce the changes.

These steps, together with an active lifestyle, may lead to a reduction in the more harmful dietary excesses of the average U.S. meal plan.