Rich in flavorful ingredients like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet is equal parts delicious and nutritious.
It’s also associated with a variety of benefits and may help support brain function, promote heart health, regulate blood sugar levels, and more.
Although there are no concrete rules for how to follow the Mediterranean diet, there are many general guidelines you can follow to incorporate the principles of the diet into your daily routine.
This article takes a closer look at what the Mediterranean diet is, how to follow it, and how it can affect your health.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods that people used to eat in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Spain, Greece, and Italy.
Researchers noted that these people were exceptionally healthy and had a low risk of many chronic conditions (1Trusted Source).
Although there are no strict rules or regulations for the diet, it typically encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and heart-healthy fats. Processed foods, added sugar, and refined grains should be restricted (2Trusted Source).
Numerous studies have now shown that the Mediterranean diet can promote weight loss and help prevent heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, and premature death (3Trusted Source).
For this reason, the Mediterranean diet is often recommended for those looking to improve their health and protect against chronic disease.
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a long list of health benefits.
Promotes heart health
The Mediterranean diet has been studied extensively for its ability to promote heart health.
In fact, research shows that the Mediterranean diet may even be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke (4Trusted Source).
One study compared the effects of the Mediterranean diet and a low fat diet and reported that the Mediterranean diet was more effective at slowing the progression of plaque buildup in the arteries, which is a major risk factor for heart disease (5Trusted Source).
Other research shows that the Mediterranean diet could also help lower levels of diastolic and systolic blood pressure to support heart health (6Trusted Source).
Supports healthy blood sugar levels
The Mediterranean diet encourages a variety of nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats.
As such, following this eating pattern may help stabilize blood sugar levels and protect against type 2 diabetes (7Trusted Source).
Interestingly, multiple studies have found that the Mediterranean diet can reduce fasting blood sugar levels and improve levels of hemoglobin A1C, a marker used to measure long-term blood sugar control (8Trusted Source).
The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to decrease insulin resistance, a condition that impairs the body’s ability to use insulin to regulate blood sugar levels effectively (9Trusted Source, 10).
Protects brain function
Several studies show that the Mediterranean diet could be beneficial for brain health and may even protect against cognitive decline as you get older.
For example, one study including 512 people found that greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with improved memory and reductions in several risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease (11Trusted Source).
Other research has found that the Mediterranean diet may be tied to a lower risk of dementia, cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease (12Trusted Source).
What’s more, one large review also showed that following the Mediterranean diet was linked to improvements in cognitive function, memory, attention, and processing speed in healthy older adults (13Trusted Source).
How to follow it
- Eat: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil
- Eat in moderation: poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt
- Eat rarely: red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils, and other highly processed foods
- Foods to eat
- Exactly which foods belong to the Mediterranean diet is controversial, partly because there’s variation between countries.
- The diet examined by most studies is high in healthy plant foods and relatively low in animal products and meat. However, eating fish and seafood is recommended at least twice a week.
- The Mediterranean lifestyle also involves regular physical activity, sharing meals with other people, and minimizing stress levels.
- You can include a mix of fresh, frozen, dried, and canned fruits and vegetables, but check package labels for added sugar and sodium.
- Ideally, you should base your diet on these healthy Mediterranean foods:
- Vegetables: tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips
- Fruits: apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters: almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almond butter, peanut butter
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, pulses, peanuts, chickpeas
- Whole grains: oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat bread and pasta
- Fish and seafood: salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, crab, mussels
- Poultry: chicken, duck, turkey
- Eggs: chicken, quail, and duck eggs
- Dairy: cheese, yogurt, milk
- Herbs and spices: garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper
- Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados, and avocado oil
- Foods to limit
- You should limit these processed foods and ingredients when following the Mediterranean diet:
- Added sugar: added sugar is found in many foods but especially high in soda, candies, ice cream, table sugar, syrup, and baked goods
- Refined grains: white bread, pasta, tortillas, chips, crackers
- Trans fats: found in margarine, fried foods, and other processed foods
- Refined oils: soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil
- Processed meat: processed sausages, hot dogs, deli meats, beef jerky
- Highly processed foods: fast food, convenience meals, microwave popcorn, granola bars
- Water should be your go-to beverage on a Mediterranean diet.
- This diet also includes moderate amounts of red wine — around one glass per day.
- However, this is completely optional, and wine should be avoided by some people including, anyone who is pregnant, has difficulty drinking in moderation, or is taking certain medications that may interact with alcohol.
- Coffee and tea are also healthy beverage choices on the Mediterranean diet. Be mindful of adding lots of added sugar or cream.
- You’ll want to limit sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda or sweet tea, which are very high in added sugar. Fruit juice would be OK to include in moderation, but you’re better off choosing whole fruits to get the benefit of fiber.