By Dylan Coombs ND
I’m generally cautious around recommending “diets.” That term often means a short-term, extreme change in eating habits, with an unsustainably low number of daily calories. People start those diets, suffer, stop them, and then think they’re unable to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The Mediterranean Diet is different, because it’s not a fad, but instead an evidence-based, nutritious way of eating with many food options that can be maintained throughout life.
Where did it come from?
Studies of the diet to prevent heart disease started in the 1950s when it was recognized that people in the Mediterranean region have much lower rates of heart disease than matching populations in Europe and North America, despite consuming alcohol, fat, and carbohydrates. You already know their impact, as one of the famous conclusions of these studies is that a daily glass of red wine is good for your health (this has been questioned recently, more on this in another post!). Later studies drilled down into what specific habits exist in the diet and lifestyle that lead to these health benefits, and whether eating this way can lead to the health benefits seen in people from the region. What resulted is an impressive list of health outcomes that come from Mediterranean eating.
What are the benefits?
- Less cardiovascular disease (CVD): this includes fewer heart attacks, less atherosclerosis, and fewer deaths from CVD. This is seen above and beyond modest improvements in cholesterol levels and other measures of CVD risk.
- Weight loss: people eating the Mediterranean Diet lost weight and had a lower body mass index (BMI). Importantly, they also had a smaller waist circumference, which is closely associated with lower heart disease risk.
- Less diabetes: in every way you measure it, glucose levels, insulin, and HbA1c, people had less diabetes risk with the diet.
- Fewer strokes: along with other cardiovascular improvements, the number of strokes is lower with Mediterranean eating.
- Less inflammation: This may be the secret sauce connecting all other outcomes, as improvements in inflammation will improve all other conditions. This is likely from a combination of fewer pro-inflammatory foods, such as red meat and processed carbohydrates, and more anti-inflammatory oils and plant-based nutrients.
What does it look like?
The great thing about following the Mediterranean Diet is that it gives you many options that fit within the plan. Put simply, it involves:
- eating a generous amount of vegetables and fruit
- having fatty fish 3 times a week
- getting lots of olive oil
- choosing whole-grain carbohydrates and low-fat dairy
- limiting red meat and sweets.
Although it may take some changes to your regular habits, it offers great variety and is very sustainable. It even combines well with the other dietary requirements we often see, such as dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegetarian.
So what’s the catch?
While the Mediterranean diet can be the backbone of a healthy lifestyle, it doesn’t have the full effect on its own. Regular physical activity, avoiding eating more than you need, and quitting smoking are the other habits that make it a complete healthy lifestyle. When these changes are made, they all work together to improve your health later in life.
Like any other lifestyle change, the Mediterranean diet isn’t necessarily the best option for you, but is an adaptable and realistic step that many people can take to decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke later in life.
Altomare, Roberta et al. “The mediterranean diet: a history of health.” Iranian journal of public health vol. 42,5 449-57. 1 May. 2013
Dinu, M et al. “Mediterranean diet and multiple health outcomes: an umbrella review of meta-analyses of observational studies and randomised trials.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 72,1 (2018): 30-43. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2017.58