The Mediterranean Diet is an elusive title for a certain way of eating that many people have heard but may not fully grasp what it really means. As a registered dietitian, I get several inquiries about what I think are the “best” diets and what are the “healthiest” things to eat. It is nearly impossible to clearly define one specific way of eating that is generally “healthy” for everyone, but the Mediterranean Diet provides a general format that outlines a specific subset of eating that many people can follow to increase their overall health. The Mediterranean Diet provides a guide on how to eat specific food groups to produce a sustainable, well-rounded diet that will help you achieve a life of health and wellness, rather than restricting the things you eat to achieve short-term weight loss goals like most fad diets.
So, what exactly does the Mediterranean Diet consist of? The Mediterranean Diet pyramid is a compact guide to the components and general portion recommendations for each. Meats and sweets sit at the top of this largely plant-based diet pyramid, encouraging more moderate consumption followed by animal products including poultry, eggs and dairy in moderate daily portions. The middle of the pyramid encourages fish and seafood consumption at least twice per week and the bottom tier is comprised of colorful plant foods, with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, beans, herbs and spices and healthy fats, which are encouraged to be consumed as a part every meal. Adequate water consumption, moderate red wine consumption as well as daily physical activity are also recommended to create a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
The Mediterranean Diet began its triumph in the 1940s study of post-World War II Crete when Ancel Keys and his colleagues discovered the impeccable cardiovascular health of its residents, even in its post-war state. Following this foundational work, hundreds of studies have explored the connections of this fresh, diverse diet to healthier and longer lives. Among its many benefits, the Mediterranean Diet is thought to not only lengthen your life, but also defend against chronic diseases, including cancer; lower heart diseases and hypertension risk, protect against Type II diabetes, aid in weight management efforts, decrease depression, protect against cognitive and neural diseases and help joint and respiratory health as well.
Of all of these benefits, the most staggering perhaps is the substantial decrease in heart disease risk, the top cause of death in the US today, that is associated with some of the Mediterranean Diet eating patterns. In a 2015 study, Harvard researchers followed 120,000 adults between the ages of 24-30 years and tracked their diets as some replaced saturated fat sources like butter with the poly- and monounsaturated fats that are staples in the Mediterranean diet, like fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil. The findings showed epidemiological evidence that replacing just 5% of daily calories that typically come from saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and whole grains reduced heart diseases risk by 25%, 15% and 9% respectively.