What is the Mediterranean Diet?
“Mediterranean diet” is a generic term based on the traditional eating habits in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. There’s not one standard Mediterranean diet. At least 16 countries border the Mediterranean. Eating styles vary among these countries and even among regions within each country because of differences in culture, ethnic background, religion, economy, geography and agricultural production. However, there are some common factors.
A Mediterranean-style diet typically includes:
- plenty of fruits, vegetables, bread and other grains, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds;
- olive oil as a primary fat source; and
- dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts.
Fish and poultry are more common than red meat in this diet. It also centers on minimally processed, plant-based foods. Wine may be consumed in low to moderate amounts, usually with meals. Fruit is a common dessert instead of sweets.
Is the Mediterranean Diet a Healthy Way to Eat?
Year after year, the Mediterranean diet comes out on top in the U.S. News and World Report annual ranking of best diets. A panel of experts judges various eating plans and popular diets on criteria including how healthy they are, how well they work and how easy they are to follow.
The Mediterranean diet is also touted as one of the healthiest by many health organizations and dietitians. So, does it live up to its good reputation?
Does the AHA recommend a Mediterranean-style diet?
Yes. A Mediterranean-style diet can help you achieve the American Heart Association’s recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern that:
- emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes;
- includes low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts; and
- limits added sugars, sugary beverages, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats.
This style of eating can play a big role in preventing heart disease and stroke and reducing risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. There is some evidence that a Mediterranean diet rich in virgin olive oil may help the body remove excess cholesterol from arteries and keep blood vessels open.
What about other popular diets?
You may have heard about popular diets like paleo, ketogenic (or keto), Atkins, interval, zone and Whole30. Keep in mind, not all trendy diets meet the AHA’s science-based criteria for a healthy eating pattern. Some show dramatic but short-term results and are not heart-healthy.
DASH, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is another eating plan that aligns with AHA recommendations and has been proven to improve health. The DASH diet allows more dairy products and meat, while the Mediterranean diet includes regular use of olive oil.
A plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet can also be a healthy way to eat.
The most important thing is to focus on the overall quality of your diet, rather than single nutrients or foods. Try to include more nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and lean proteins. Limit foods that offer lots of calories but little nutritional value.
What are other benefits of a healthy diet?
What you eat affects many aspects of your overall health, including brain health. A healthy diet can improve your ability to think, remember and process information as you age.
In one study, the healthiest eaters at age 50 had a nearly 90% lower risk of dementia compared with those who had the least healthy diets. The Mediterranean and DASH diets have been proven to boost brain health as well as improve heart health.