What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

Learn About This Healthy, Flexible Way of Eating

galacian octopus on plate with wine

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating emphasizing foods that are frequently eaten in areas that border the Mediterranean sea. This comprises a list of some 21 countries, and while their inhabitants don't all eat alike, their diets are largely plant-based rather than animal-based, and people mostly consume fats that are healthy, as opposed to saturated fats like butter and lard. Beans, eggs, fish, and poultry are enjoyed while red meat and sweets are limited. The concept is about eating what is naturally and readily available, an eating style that has existed since the beginning of time, but the Mediterranean diet didn't gain popularity until the late 20th century.

To some extent, the Mediterranean diet has significant overlap with what we think of as the traditional Middle Eastern diet, including foods like hummus, falafel, olives, rice, chickpeas, yogurt, and dates. Other versions of the Mediterranean diet might look like the Greek diet, which incorporates large amounts of vegetables and grains along with olive oil, fish, nuts, and yogurt. Likewise, it reflects the Italian diet, which incorporates much of the above, along with tomatoes, bread, and pasta, as well as the diets of the Mediterranean regions of France, Spain, and North Africa. 

The Origin of the Mediterranean Diet

Although this way of eating existed for centuries, the Mediterranean diet was not publicized until 1975, by husband-and-wife team Minnesota biologist Ancel Keys and chemist Margaret Keys. Ancel Keys discovered that poor Italian communities were living healthier lives than wealthy New Yorkers, and conducted a study regarding their diets. He found that the difference in the two groups was what they were eating, and how the foods affected their health, in particular cardiovascular health. Since then, nutritionists have used Keys' research to determine the Mediterranean diet is a healthy way of eating.

A "diet" in the true sense of the word, this way of eating is a reflection of the way people ate in Greece and Italy and has since expanded to other Mediterranean countries. It emphasizes olive oil, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, encourages fish and seafood, and recommends wine in moderation.

What Makes the Mediterranean Diet Different

While the word "diet" has come to mean a short-term, highly restrictive food regimen meant to help you lose weight, its real definition is simply the types of food we eat. The Mediterranean diet stays true to this meaning, outlining a varied list of foods, creating a non-restrictive, flexible diet that is adjustable to personal preferences. Its goal is to establish a healthy way of eating, not lose pounds in a short amount of time. In fact, the Mediterranean diet was ranked the number one diet overall in 2019 by U.S. News and World Report for its sensibility and health benefits.

In addition, the Mediterranean diet has been backed by many studies and has been shown to promote several health benefits. A distinctive aspect of this diet is that it also encourages a "Mediterranean lifestyle," which includes sharing meals, exercise, and generally enjoying life.

Eating the Mediterranean Diet

Because of the nature of this diet, the recommendations are somewhat broad, offering food categories and how often they should be consumed.

On a Daily Basis

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Whole grains, nuts, and seeds
  • Herbs and spices including garlic
  • Healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, and olives

A Few Times a Week

  • Seafood, poultry, and eggs
  • Legumes
  • Dairy such as Greek yogurt and cheese (in moderate amounts)

A Couple Times a Month

  • Red meat
  • Sweets

Ingredients and Foods to Avoid

  • Trans fats
  • Refined grains
  • Added sugar
  • Refined oils
  • Processed meats
  • Highly processed foods

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Whereas most diets are focused on helping you shed pounds, the Mediterranean diet is centered on a healthy lifestyle. Because the foods are anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants and fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals, eating this way has several health benefits.

Studies have shown the Mediterranean diet can promote heart health and help prevent cardiovascular disease, as well as lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. It has also been shown to benefit those with diabetes.

The Mediterranean Diet and Weight Loss

Weight loss, as you may know, has to do with how many calories you consume versus how many you burn through ordinary activity and exercise. If you burn more calories than you take in, then you lose weight; if you take in more than you burn, you gain weight. As such, it should be clear that if you consume more calories on the Mediterranean diet than you burn, you will gain weight, and vice versa.

So if your goal with the Mediterranean diet is to lose weight, be sure to eat fewer calories than you burn off while still maintaining a healthy diet. But if your goal is to enjoy a nutritious and delicious diet, emphasizing plant-based foods and healthy fats, then the Mediterranean diet will serve you well. 

Article Sources
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  3. Esposito K. Effects of a mediterranean-style diet on the need for antihyperglycemic drug therapy in patients with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2009;151(5):306.