The Mediterranean Diet

A total diet and lifestyle approach continues to be one of the best prescriptions for a long, healthy life.

The Mediterranean Diet: What It Is

The Mediterranean diet has long been considered one of the healthiest diets on the planet - and rightfully so.

For thousands of years, residents along the Mediterranean coast have enjoyed the delicious diet, leisurely dining, and engaging in regular physical activity. They don’t think of their eating habits as a diet plan; it’s simply a way of life that can lead to long, healthy lives with less chance of chronic disease.

A growing body of research continues to prove that eating a diet rich in plant foods and healthy fats is good for you. Studies show that following a Mediterranean diet protects against the development of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, some types of cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease -- and also leads to a longer lifespan.

The health effects of a Mediterranean diet have been studied extensively in the last 10 years, resulting in better science and more clinical evidence.

“There are numerous health benefits, the strongest and most profound evidence is the protection of cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, a researcher, cardiologist, associate professor, and codirector of the cardiovascular epidemiology program at Harvard School of Public Health.

Health benefits are not attributed to diet alone; it is the whole package, which includes the lifestyle of the people who live along the Mediterranean.

“In addition to the wide variety of delicious, nutrient-rich foods -- the protective effect of leisurely dining, family involvement, and physical activity make the Mediterranean diet even more powerful,” says Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, author of The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book.

What Is a Mediterranean Diet?

"The Mediterranean Diet is a lifestyle where good taste meets good health," says Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, the nonprofit food and nutrition group that first introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 1993.

There is no single Mediterranean diet. Instead, each region across Europe -- from Spain to the Middle East -- customizes the basic diet to take advantage of food availability and cultural preferences.

Similarities include a reliance on plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, olives, and olive oil along with some cheese, yogurt, fish, poultry, eggs, and wine. These foods form the basis of the plan and provide thousands of micronutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that work together to protect against chronic disease.

Most of the foods on the plan are fresh, seasonal whole foods - they're not processed. Preparation methods tend to be simple; foods are rarely deep-fried.

Only small amounts of saturated fat, sodium, sweets, and meat are part of the plan.

The Mediterranean lifestyle also includes leisurely dining and regular physical activity, which are an important part of the equation.

Secrets of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil is what most people associate with a Mediterranean-type diet. But it's not just any olive oil; it needs to be extra virgin.

“It may not be the monounsaturated fat as much as it is the phytochemicals and compounds in the extra virgin olive oil that offers the health benefits,” Mozaffarian says.

Still, it's not just about the olive oil.

"There is no good evidence that monounsaturated fats alone are protective for cardiovascular disease," Mozaffarian says. "Instead, it is the lifestyle and all the foods together that are so favorable."

Mediterranean Diet Benefits

The Mediterranean diet has long been associated with a low risk of heart disease.

Studies show that a Mediterranean-type diet is advantageous across the board for cardiovascular risk factors, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

For instance, the PREDIMED study compared the Mediterranean diet to a low-fat diet, and found the Mediterranean diet has more beneficial effects on cardiovascular risk factors.

And in March 2011, an analysis of 50 studies linked the Mediterranean diet to lower odds of getting metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of risk factors (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and abdominal fat) that make heart disease, diabetes, and stroke more likely.

Other studies suggest that -- along with maintaining a healthy body weight -- one of the best strategies to lower diabetes risk is to eat a Mediterranean-type diet that's rich in plant foods; low in red meat, meat products, high-fat dairy, and refined grains; and includes a moderate amount of alcohol (mainly red wine).

Besides all the other health benefits, there may also be a weight advantage. Research makes it clear: Being physically active and eating a nutritious diet made up mainly of whole foods that are filling and satisfying can help people lose weight.

A Model for Healthy Families

We can thank the cultures and countries that surround the Mediterranean for giving us the delicious flavors, traditions, and fresh foods that make up this healthy lifestyle, Baer-Sinnott says.

Families who eat meals together tend to be more content, eat more nutritious meals, and influence their children to make better food choices, Diekman says. A study published in Appetite found young adults who switched to a Mediterranean diet showed significant improvements in vigor, alertness, and contentment.

“Focusing on all the healthy foods that are good for you, not nutrients, is the best way to help families eat healthier diets and reduce risk of chronic disease,” Mozaffarian says.

Children who learn to eat a wide variety of foods early in life are more likely to enjoy and stick with a healthier dietary pattern for life. A wide variety of choices makes it easy, even for the pickiest eaters, to stick to and enjoy the diet.

Consistently a Top-Rated Diet

Nutrition experts tout the traditional Mediterranean diet as a first-rate diet plan.

U.S. News and World Report ranked it second to the DASH diet as best diet overall.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines used a Mediterranean diet template in the design of the U.S. government's My Plate model, which encourages Americans to eat more nutritious whole plant foods and fewer animal foods.

Hands down, it is one of the best diet plans. It tastes delicious, is totally enjoyable, and exactly what the body needs for good health, says Diekman, nutrition director at Washington University in St. Louis.

“For decades, the science continues to grow and support the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet emphasizing the importance of a plant-based diet, healthy fats, and stress relief from family, friends, and regular physical activity," Diekman says.

Adopt a Mediterranean-Style Diet

The Mediterranean diet is considered a model for good health. Research continues to show the Mediterranean diet, based on healthy foods and physical activity, are the prescription for a long, healthy life. It is an excellent, enjoyable lifestyle diet plan that is easy to follow, flexible, and best of all - good for you.

And you don’t need to live along the Mediterranean. “Whether you live in Alaska, Maine, or somewhere in between, you don’t need to travel any farther than your local supermarket to find everything you need to bring the Mediterranean Diet to your own table," Baer-Sinnott says.

Even if you don’t completely follow the dietary pattern, simply eating more of the foods on the plan, making dining more leisurely, and being more active are superb health goals.

Plans like the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension), My Plate, OMNI Heart diet, and the American Heart Association diet and lifestyle recommendations are very similar healthy eating plans. Following any of these diets is an investment in good health.