fbpx

Mediterranean Diet Guide: Sifting Through Claims Of Heart-Healthy Benefits

Recently, my grandmother passed away. She was 99 years old and a spitfire of a woman.

She lived most of her adult life alone, after losing her husband years and years ago, and what always surprised me in her last couple of decades of life is how robust and healthy she seemed to be even though she was never very active.

When I asked my mother why she thought “Grandma Rose“ (as we called her) lived such a long and vibrant life, my mom quickly replied, “You know, even though Grandma Rose was never very active, she followed the Mediterranean Diet basically her whole life.”

The Mediterranean Diet is one of the best-researched and most evidence-based healthy eating patterns in the world.

In this guide, we will discuss what the Mediterranean diet is, how to follow it, what you can eat, foods to avoid, and the potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet plan.

Let’s jump in!

A variety of foods on the Mediterranean Diet including healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet? 

The Mediterranean Diet is a popular diet that is based on replicating the traditional eating habits of individuals living in the Mediterranean region.

Although there are now a few iterations of the Mediterranean Diet, all versions can be considered a plant-focused diet.1Davis, C., Bryan, J., Hodgson, J., & Murphy, K. (2015). Definition of the Mediterranean Diet; A Literature Review. Nutrients7(11), 9139–9153. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7115459

‌The Mediterranean diet food list prioritizes the consumption of whole, unprocessed, natural plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, herbs, nuts, avocados, olive oil, and spices.

Even though the Mediterranean Diet focuses on many nutritious plant-based foods, you can still eat certain animal-based proteins such as fish, eggs, and certain cheeses, and can even occasionally have red meat or poultry in moderation.

What distinguishes the Mediterranean diet plan from other popular weight loss diets is that it is not inherently a weight loss diet. Rather, it is a style of eating or a dietary approach designed to promote health.

The Mediterranean Diet is designed to be a sustainable, long-term, healthy lifestyle eating plan, not a restrictive, temporary fad diet or extreme weight loss diet.

This isn’t to say that you can’t follow the Mediterranean diet for weight loss or that it isn’t good for weight loss, but that is not the goal or purpose of the diet, rather it is to improve health and reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases.

To this end, even if you are trying to maintain your weight or perhaps you want to gain weight, you can still follow the Mediterranean diet by adjusting your caloric intake accordingly.

A salad bowl with humus and vegetables.

What Are the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet?

Compared to many other health and weight loss diets, the Mediterranean Diet is one of the most well-studied, research-backed diets. 

In fact, due to the abundance of scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits, this dietary style consistently places among the top two or three diets in the U.S. News and World Report annual ranking of the best diets for weight loss and health.2Best Diets Overall. (2019). Usnews.com. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall

The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to provide numerous health benefits.

For example, studies have consistently found that the Mediterranean Diet is associated with reducing the risk of certain chronic diseases and improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease (reversing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels).

More specifically, evidence suggests that adhering to the Mediterranean Diet can reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome,3Salas-Salvadó, J., Fernández-Ballart, J., Ros, E., Martínez-González, M.-A., Fitó, M., Estruch, R., Corella, D., Fiol, M., Gómez-Gracia, E., Arós, F., Flores, G., Lapetra, J., Lamuela-Raventós, R., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Bulló, M., Basora, J., & Covas, M.-I. (2008). Effect of a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented With Nuts on Metabolic Syndrome Status. Archives of Internal Medicine168(22), 2449. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.168.22.2449 all-cause mortality,4Guasch-Ferré, M., Bulló, M., Martínez-González, M. Á., Ros, E., Corella, D., Estruch, R., Fitó, M., Arós, F., Wärnberg, J., Fiol, M., Lapetra, J., Vinyoles, E., Lamuela-Raventós, R. M., Serra-Majem, L., Pintó, X., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Basora, J., & Salas-Salvadó, J. (2013). Frequency of nut consumption and mortality risk in the PREDIMED nutrition intervention trial. BMC Medicine11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-11-164 high cholesterol,5Fitó, M., Guxens, M., Corella, D., Sáez, G., Estruch, R., de la Torre, R., Francés, F., Cabezas, C., López-Sabater, M. del C., Marrugat, J., García-Arellano, A., Arós, F., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Fiol, M., Solá, R., & Covas, M.-I. (2007). Effect of a Traditional Mediterranean Diet on Lipoprotein Oxidation. Archives of Internal Medicine167(11), 1195. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.167.11.1195 and type 2 diabetes.6Salas-Salvado, J., Bullo, M., Babio, N., Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A., Ibarrola-Jurado, N., Basora, J., Estruch, R., Covas, M. I., Corella, D., Aros, F., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., & Ros, E. (2010). Reduction in the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes With the Mediterranean Diet: Results of the PREDIMED-Reus nutrition intervention randomized trial. Diabetes Care34(1), 14–19. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc10-1288

For those interested in the Mediterranean diet for weight loss, there is also evidence showing that it may be more effective at helping people lose weight compared to low-fat diets.

The health and weight loss benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are thought to be attributable to the foods found on the diet plan as well as the absence of certain foods that you can’t eat on the diet meal plan.7Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Covas, M.-I., Corella, D., Arós, F., Gómez-Gracia, E., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Fiol, M., Lapetra, J., Lamuela-Raventos, R. M., Serra-Majem, L., Pintó, X., Basora, J., Muñoz, M. A., Sorlí, J. V., Martínez, J. A., & Martínez-González, M. A. (2013). Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. New England Journal of Medicine368(14), 1279–1290. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa1200303

A variety of foods on the Mediterranean Diet including healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

Rich In Anti-Inflammatory Foods

The antioxidants in the plant-based Mediterranean Diet foods and the heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids from fish) can reduce inflammation.

It is generally thought the Mediterranean diet is an anti-inflammatory diet due largely in part to the consumption of fatty fish and extra virgin olive oil.

Fatty fish, including salmon and sardines, are staples in the Mediterranean diet plan.

These types of fish contain heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory long-chain omega-3 fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which have been shown to decrease inflammation.8Ghasemi Fard, S., Wang, F., Sinclair, A. J., Elliott, G., & Turchini, G. M. (2018). How does high DHA fish oil affect health? A systematic review of evidence. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition59(11), 1684–1727. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2018.1425978

‌EPA and DHA are metabolized in the body into compounds known as resolvins and protectins, which have direct anti-inflammatory effects, with studies suggesting that consuming fatty fish or omega-3 fatty acid supplements can reduce levels of CRP (C-reactive protein), one of the primary markers of inflammation.9Lankinen, M., Uusitupa, M., & Schwab, U. (2019). Nordic Diet and Inflammation-A Review of Observational and Intervention Studies. Nutrients11(6), 1369. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11061369

A variety of foods on the Mediterranean Diet including healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

‌Moreover, studies suggest that the anti-inflammatory benefits of consuming fatty fish can potentially increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease.

The Mediterranean diet meal plan also encourages eating avocados and avocado oil. Avocados are packed with potassium, magnesium, fiber, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.10Ford, N. A., & Liu, A. G. (2020). The Forgotten Fruit: A Case for Consuming Avocado Within the Traditional Mediterranean Diet. Frontiers in Nutrition7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.00078

‌Avocado consumption may reduce levels of LDL cholesterol, and inflammatory markers, such as interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β) and CRP.

Avocados also contain carotenoids and tocopherols, which are linked to a reduced risk of cancer, and may reduce skin inflammation

Finally, the Mediterranean meal plan is rich in olive oil and olives. 

In addition to healthy fats, extra-virgin olive oil contains an antioxidant known as oleocanthal, which has been suggested to be nearly as effective as ibuprofen.11Segura-Carretero, A., & Curiel, J. A. (2018). Current Disease-Targets for Oleocanthal as Promising Natural Therapeutic Agent. International Journal of Molecular Sciences19(10), 2899. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19102899

‌It also contains oleic acid, another powerful heart-healthy compound that can reduce cardiovascular stress and protect against atherosclerosis.12Perdomo, L., Beneit, N., Otero, Y. F., Escribano, Ó., Díaz-Castroverde, S., Gómez-Hernández, A., & Benito, M. (2015). Protective role of oleic acid against cardiovascular insulin resistance and in the early and late cellular atherosclerotic process. Cardiovascular Diabetology14, 75. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12933-015-0237-9

A variety of foods on the Mediterranean Diet including healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

Eliminates Unhealthy Foods

The lack of processed foods and red meat, refined carbs, processed oils, etc. in the Mediterranean diet can prevent inflammation, high insulin levels, and other adverse health effects of eating ultra-processed foods.13Certain Foods Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/certain-foods-linked-long-term-weight-gain

For example, studies have found that diets high in processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, bologna, etc.) and red meat can increase the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer.14Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. (2016). World Health Organization. https://doi.org/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/index.html

Other studies have also confirmed that high-protein diets that are high in red meat are associated with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.15Sun, Q. (2012). Red Meat Consumption and Mortality. Archives of Internal Medicine172(7), 555. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287

Similarly, studies have found that eating a lot of red meat and full-fat dairy can increase the risk of heart disease, while fish, poultry, and nuts can decrease the risk.16Bernstein, A. M., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., Stampfer, M. J., Manson, J. E., & Willett, W. C. (2010). Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Circulation122(9), 876–883. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.915165

A variety of foods on the Mediterranean Diet including healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet

There isn’t a specific Mediterranean Diet food list or Mediterranean diet meal plan with foods you have to eat or limitations on how many meals and snacks you can have per day.

Moreover, the Mediterranean Diet does not have specific calorie limits nor does it even emphasize counting calories or tracking macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). 

This flexibility can improve adherence to the Mediterranean Diet, but it does mean that you need to be mindful of your portions and food choices if you are trying to lose weight.

You are supposed to focus on eating foods in their most whole, natural state and choosing specific nutritious foods that are native to the Mediterranean region or found in the traditional diet of those in the Mediterranean region.

Here are some of the best Mediterranean Diet foods to include:

Foods To Include In The Mediterranean Diet

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Tubers and Starchy Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Whole Grains
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Fish and Seafood
  • Healthy Fats
  • Herbs and Spices
  • Red wine

Smaller portions or less frequent consumption of high-quality poultry, eggs, and dairy is also allowed.

High-quality red meat can be eaten very sparingly, limited to a couple of times a month.

Avoid processed meats, refined grains, processed foods, refined oils, artificial sweeteners, and “diet foods” like low-fat cookies, sugar-free jello, 100-calorie snack packs, and lite ice cream.

A variety of foods on the Mediterranean Diet including healthy proteins, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats.

Sample Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan

Because there isn’t a specific Mediterranean diet food list and there is a lot of flexibility in the number of calories and meals you might eat on a Mediterranean diet plan, there can be quite a lot of variation in Mediterranean diet recipes and meal plans.

That said, here is a sample of what a day on a Mediterranean diet meal plan might look like:

  • Breakfast: Overnight oats made with almond milk, almond butter, flaxseeds, mixed berries, and walnuts.
  • Snack: Boneless sardines on whole-grain crackers 
  • Lunch: Grilled mixed vegetables salad bowl with bulgur, lentils, pumpkin seeds, feta cheese, and an olive oil and lemon juice dressing 
  • Snack: Hummus, carrot sticks, and whole wheat pita bread 
  • Dinner: Baked sweet potatoes and asparagus with salmon topped with pesto and capers 
  • Dessert: Fresh fig slices and pomegranate seeds over Greek yogurt with a light drizzle of organic honey 

Are you interested in learning about another healthy diet plan? Check out our guide to the Zone Diet here.

Pouring a glass of red wine.

References

  • 1
    Davis, C., Bryan, J., Hodgson, J., & Murphy, K. (2015). Definition of the Mediterranean Diet; A Literature Review. Nutrients7(11), 9139–9153. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7115459
  • 2
    Best Diets Overall. (2019). Usnews.com. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall
  • 3
    Salas-Salvadó, J., Fernández-Ballart, J., Ros, E., Martínez-González, M.-A., Fitó, M., Estruch, R., Corella, D., Fiol, M., Gómez-Gracia, E., Arós, F., Flores, G., Lapetra, J., Lamuela-Raventós, R., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Bulló, M., Basora, J., & Covas, M.-I. (2008). Effect of a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented With Nuts on Metabolic Syndrome Status. Archives of Internal Medicine168(22), 2449. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.168.22.2449
  • 4
    Guasch-Ferré, M., Bulló, M., Martínez-González, M. Á., Ros, E., Corella, D., Estruch, R., Fitó, M., Arós, F., Wärnberg, J., Fiol, M., Lapetra, J., Vinyoles, E., Lamuela-Raventós, R. M., Serra-Majem, L., Pintó, X., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Basora, J., & Salas-Salvadó, J. (2013). Frequency of nut consumption and mortality risk in the PREDIMED nutrition intervention trial. BMC Medicine11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-11-164
  • 5
    Fitó, M., Guxens, M., Corella, D., Sáez, G., Estruch, R., de la Torre, R., Francés, F., Cabezas, C., López-Sabater, M. del C., Marrugat, J., García-Arellano, A., Arós, F., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Fiol, M., Solá, R., & Covas, M.-I. (2007). Effect of a Traditional Mediterranean Diet on Lipoprotein Oxidation. Archives of Internal Medicine167(11), 1195. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.167.11.1195
  • 6
    Salas-Salvado, J., Bullo, M., Babio, N., Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A., Ibarrola-Jurado, N., Basora, J., Estruch, R., Covas, M. I., Corella, D., Aros, F., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., & Ros, E. (2010). Reduction in the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes With the Mediterranean Diet: Results of the PREDIMED-Reus nutrition intervention randomized trial. Diabetes Care34(1), 14–19. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc10-1288
  • 7
    Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Covas, M.-I., Corella, D., Arós, F., Gómez-Gracia, E., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Fiol, M., Lapetra, J., Lamuela-Raventos, R. M., Serra-Majem, L., Pintó, X., Basora, J., Muñoz, M. A., Sorlí, J. V., Martínez, J. A., & Martínez-González, M. A. (2013). Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. New England Journal of Medicine368(14), 1279–1290. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa1200303
  • 8
    Ghasemi Fard, S., Wang, F., Sinclair, A. J., Elliott, G., & Turchini, G. M. (2018). How does high DHA fish oil affect health? A systematic review of evidence. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition59(11), 1684–1727. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2018.1425978
  • 9
    Lankinen, M., Uusitupa, M., & Schwab, U. (2019). Nordic Diet and Inflammation-A Review of Observational and Intervention Studies. Nutrients11(6), 1369. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11061369
  • 10
    Ford, N. A., & Liu, A. G. (2020). The Forgotten Fruit: A Case for Consuming Avocado Within the Traditional Mediterranean Diet. Frontiers in Nutrition7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.00078
  • 11
    Segura-Carretero, A., & Curiel, J. A. (2018). Current Disease-Targets for Oleocanthal as Promising Natural Therapeutic Agent. International Journal of Molecular Sciences19(10), 2899. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms19102899
  • 12
    Perdomo, L., Beneit, N., Otero, Y. F., Escribano, Ó., Díaz-Castroverde, S., Gómez-Hernández, A., & Benito, M. (2015). Protective role of oleic acid against cardiovascular insulin resistance and in the early and late cellular atherosclerotic process. Cardiovascular Diabetology14, 75. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12933-015-0237-9
  • 13
    Certain Foods Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/certain-foods-linked-long-term-weight-gain
  • 14
    Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. (2016). World Health Organization. https://doi.org/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/index.html
  • 15
    Sun, Q. (2012). Red Meat Consumption and Mortality. Archives of Internal Medicine172(7), 555. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287
  • 16
    Bernstein, A. M., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., Stampfer, M. J., Manson, J. E., & Willett, W. C. (2010). Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Circulation122(9), 876–883. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.915165
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.