The Mediterranean diet has gained a considerable amount of attention here in the U.S. in recent years, in large part, due to a number of reports that it may help to improve several aspects of your overall health.  

From decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease to improving the function of your brain, research suggests that adherence to a Mediterranean diet may offer a number of different short and long-term benefits.    

Before we dive too deep into the benefits though, let first discuss what the Mediterranean diet actually is and what foods are and aren’t on the menu.  

What Is The Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional eating habits of the indigenous people living around the Mediterranean sea — particularly Italy and Greece.(1) Modeled around the main food sources consumed in this region during the 1960s, the Mediterranean diet contrasts with the contemporary Western diet in a number of ways.(2)

With the rise of modern agricultural and food production, the foods that make up our regular diets have changed significantly, even for those living in the Mediterranean region.(3)

While the foods we eat nowadays may be cheaper and more readily available, they also contain more low-quality ingredients.   More of our calories now come from processed foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats which has contributed to a drastic increase in obesity-related morbidity and mortality in Western society.    

What’s Not on The Menu?

The Mediterranean diet eliminates highly processed foods from your eating routine.  That includes foods and beverages with lots of added sugar — like high fructose corn syrup — as well as oils, grains, and meats that have been highly processed.  It’s also low in saturated and trans fat.(4)

While these types of foods may be abundant in modern-day western society, they weren’t consumed by our European predecessors, whom research shows, had a much lower incidence of obesity-related disorders.(5)

Mediterranean Diet Foods

Through evaluating the evidence across hundreds of different peer-reviewed journal articles,  a group of experts assembled by the Mediterranean Diet Foundation has developed a food pyramid based on the most current research findings.(6)

In the pyramid, foods are broken down into three basic categories: foods you can eat every day, foods you can eat a few times a week, and foods you can eat only occasionally.  

⫸Main Every Day Foods

The Mediterranean diet is centered around three types of food — vegetables, fruits, and cereals — which should be incorporated into all of your main meals.(7)

Vegetables

Vegetables play an important role in the Mediterranean diet, helping to provide your body with a healthy supply of the vitamins and minerals it needs in order to optimally function.  

Because different vegetables contain different concentrations of essential nutrients, it’s important to consume a variety of different vegetables to assure that you’re getting a diversity of micronutrients.  

Mediterranean Diet Vegetables

  • Tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Spinach
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Peppers
  • Peas
  • Zucchini 
  • Cucumber
  • etc…

Fruit

At least one serving of fruit should also be incorporated into your main meals.  Fruits are loaded with antioxidants and other substances that help to protect and support all of your body’s major systems.(8)

Fruits should also be your go-to dessert option.  Because the Mediterranean diet keeps unhealthy sweets to a minimum, fruits should serve as one of your primary sources of sugar.   

Mediterranean Diet Fruits

  • Oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Grapes
  • Raspberries
  • Pears
  • Melons
  • etc…

Whole Grain Cereals

We’re not talking about breakfast cereals here.  The term cereal refers to unprocessed, whole grain foods like pasta, rice, and bread, which you should also be present in your main means (1 – 2 servings per meal).  

In addition to being a substantial source of carbohydrates, whole grain food sources are also an excellent source of dietary fiber which on top of supporting your digestive system, also helps you to feel more satiated after a meal.  

Mediterranean Diet Grains

  • Whole grain pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Whole Oats
  • Whole grain bread
  • Buckwheat
  • etc…

⫸Other Everyday Foods

Olive Oil

Olive oil is also consumed on a daily basis with the Mediterranean diet.  In fact, it should serve as your primary source of dietary fat — 25% to 35% of your total daily calories should come from healthy fat sources likes olive oil.(9) While fat often gets a bad wrap, it actually plays a number of vital roles in your body, contributing to a myriad of different cellular processes.  

Unsaturated fats like olive oil should make up the majority of the fat found in your diet.  Trans fats, on the other hand, which are commonly characterized as “unhealthy fats” should be kept to a minimum on the Mediterranean diet.(10)

In addition to serving as your primary cooking oil, olive oil can also be used as a flavor additive on things like salad and bread.  

Dairy-Based Foods

The Mediterranean diet calls for 2-3 servings per day of low-fat dairy-based foods like yogurt and cheese as well.  In addition to containing healthy amounts of protein, dairy products are also high in calcium and vitamin D, which can help to support the overall health of your bones.  

It’s important to point out though that dairy-based foods can be high in saturated fat, which should be kept to a minimum on the Mediterranean diet, so they’ll need to be consumed in moderation each day.  

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are also a daily food source on the Mediterranean diet and experts recommend that you should have between one to two servings of them per day.

In addition to containing healthy fats like mono and polyunsaturated fat, nuts and seeds are also rich in things like vitamins and antioxidants.

Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices are also mainstays in the Mediterranean diet. Things like garlic and onions powder can be a healthy and helpful way to add additional flavors into your meals.  

They can also be a useful substitute for salt, which can be detrimental to your health in large amounts.   In addition to improving the flavor profile of your food, herbs and spices are a good source of things like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants as well.   

⫸Weekly Foods

On top of things that you should eat every day, the Mediterranean diet also includes foods that should be consumed only a few times a week.

Many of these kinds of foods are sources of dietary protein, which plays a number of important roles in the maintenance of your body’s tissues, however, potatoes also fall into the weekly foods category.  

The Mediterranean diet includes proteins that come from both animal and plant-based sources and while these types of foods may be consumed multiple times a week, they’re not to be eaten as often as the types of foods listed in the above section.    

Animal-based proteins should come from 3 main sources — fish, eggs, and white meatRed meat can also be consumed, however, it should be eaten in moderation.  Plant-based proteins should predominantly come from things like beans, legumes, and nuts.

 Here’s what the allowances look like for your weekly foods:  

Food SourceWeekly Serving Size
Fish2+ servings
Eggs2 – 4 servings
White Mean (Chicken, Turkey, etc..)2 servings
Red Meat (Beef, Pork, etc..)< 2 serving
Beans & Legumes3+ servings
Potatoes≤ 3 Servings

⫸Occasional Foods

At the very apex of the Mediterranean food pyramid are foods that you should only eat occasionally — we’re talking a few times a month.  These foods generally include sweets, which are often loaded with trans fats and/or added sugars.  

This category includes everything from cake and pie to sugary beverages like soft drinks and fruit juices.  It’s generally, it’s recommended that you have less than 2 servings of sweets per week.

⫸What Should You Drink?

Water should be your main beverage on the Mediterranean diet.  In general, it’s recommended that the average person consumes 1.5 to 2 liters of water per day — that’s approximately 6 – 8 glass.(11)

On top of water, unsweetened tea and coffee can also be consumed in moderate amounts on the Mediterranean diet.  Drinking small amounts of wine — particularly red wine — is also allowed, especially during mealtime. The standard recommendation is no more than 2 glasses per day for men and 1 glass per day for women.(12)

Mediterranean Diet Benefits

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The Mediterranean diet is amongst the most well-researched diets out there and as such, it’s become a standard dietary template for promoting healthy eating habits.  

It’s been investigated for decades in hundreds of different studies and there is a sizeable body of evidence that on top of helping with weight loss, the Mediterranean diet, may also aid in preventing several chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.(13)

1. Decrease the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease    

The most well-demonstrated benefit associated with the Meditteranean diet is its preventative effects on cardiovascular disease.  A number of different studies, including several systematic reviews, have concluded that strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet helped to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events in test subjects from a variety of different backgrounds.(14)

For example, a 2013 randomized trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine recruited over 7,000 participants to be involved in a long-term study on the Mediterranean Diet and cardiovascular disease.(15)

Participants were assigned to eat either a Meditteranean diet or to a reduced-fat diet and researchers followed up with them an average of 4.8 years after the beginning of the study to evaluate their health.  

Amongst those at high risk of heart disease, researchers found that the occurrence of cardiovascular events like heart attacks, strokes or deaths from heart-related causes, was significantly lower in the Mediterranean diet group in comparison to the reduced-fat group.

2. Mediterranean Diet For Weight Loss

In addition to reducing your risk of having a stroke or heart attack, there’s also a sizeable body of evidence that the Mediterranean diet can be an effective and healthy tool for weight loss.  

Several studies have demonstrated that when combined with a calorie restriction and physical activity, the Mediterranean diet had similar effects on weight loss and metabolic health when compared to other popular weight-loss diets.(16)(17)

For instance, a 2008 2-year randomized trial recruited over 300 hundred moderately obese participants and assigned them to one of three diet groups.(18) Group 1 was given the Mediterranean Diet, group 2 a low-fat diet, and group 3 a low-carb diet. Groups 1 and 2’s calories were restricted, while group 3’s were not.  

At the conclusion of the study, over 84% of the participants adhered to the diet they were assigned for the full 2 year period.  All three groups lost significant amounts of weight, with the Mediterranean diet group losing 4.6 kgs compared to 3.3 kgs for the low-fat group and 5.5 kgs for the low-carb group.     

3. Decrease the Risk of Diabetes

Couple with weight loss, adherence to the Mediterranean diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, which is closely associated with obesity.  

In fact, a 2014 systematic review on the Mediterranean Diet and diabetes prevention evaluated 8 different prospective cohort studies that cumulatively included over 120,000 participants. (19)

The researchers ultimately found that across all of the included studies, the risk of diabetes was significantly reduced (almost a 20% reduction) in the groups of individuals who strictly adhered to the Mediterranean diet.  

4. Promote Brain Health

A number of studies have also demonstrated that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet may help to improve brain health and cognitive function as well.  Research suggests that the vitamin and mineral-rich Mediterranean diet helps to supply your brain with a number of important micronutrients central to your mental health.  

Several studies on Alzheimer’s disease have demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet may help to prevent mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s.  For example, a 2009 study published in the Archives of Neurology involving over 1300 participants with normal cognitive function investigated the effects of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive impairment.(20)

After numerous years — participants received a follow-up in 4.5 years on average — the researchers ultimately found that compared to subjects with a low adherence to the Mediterranean diet, those who maintained a high adherence, on average, had a 28% lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.   

On top of cognitive impairment, research also shows that the Mediterranean diet may help to prevent depression as well.  For instance, a 2013 meta-analysis published in the Annals of Neurology included 9 studies investigating the relationship between the Mediterranean diet and depression.(21)

The researchers ultimately found that across all of the included studies, there was a significant reduction in the risk of depression for participants who had a high adherence to the Mediterranean diet.    

5. Improve Gut Health

The trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut, which are cumulatively known as your gut microbiota, play an important role in maintaining the integrity of your immune system and a weak microbiota can ultimately increase your risk of sickness and disease.     

However, research has demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet may also help to improve your gut health.  For instance, a 2016 study found that the Mediterranean — and particularly a high intake of things like fruits and vegetables — improved gut microbiota diversity and function in subjects who were previously on a Western diet high in processed meats, added sugars and unhealthy fats.(22)

Are There Any Cons?

When it comes to your health, there are no serious short or long-term risks associated with the Mediterranean diet.  As we just discussed, most of the research suggests that a high adherence may actually offer a number of different health benefits.  

While there might not be any cons when it comes to your health, the same thing can’t be said for your wallet.  The unfortunate reality is that highly processed foods are much cheaper for manufacturers to produce in comparison to healthy, whole foods.

Ultimately, that means in order to eat a diet that’s high in fresh, unprocessed foods, you’re going to have to shell out more money at the grocery store.  Although it might not sound ideal, it’s a relatively small price to pay when it comes to supporting both your mental and physical health.       

Wrap Up

The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of people from countries like Italy, Greece, and Spain during the 1960s.  Primarily oriented around healthy, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, the Mediterranean diet also includes moderate amounts of fish and white meat like chicken and turkey.    

It’s amongst the most-well studied diets, with research showing that it may help with everything from weight loss and cardiovascular disease prevention to improving the contents and composition of your gut microbiota. The only potential downside to the Mediterranean diet is that some of the foods it includes may be more expensive.