How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet and Enjoy Its Health Benefits

The Mediterranean diet is famous for its health benefits, but many people are unsure of what it is or how to follow it.

Filoti, Greece
By Simon Roots
Dec. 17, 2021 10:09 UTC
Filoti, Greece

For years now, the Mediterranean diet has right­fully been pub­licly cel­e­brated for its phys­i­cal and men­tal health ben­e­fits, but what exactly is it, and how does it work?

In sim­ple terms, the Mediterranean diet refers to the tra­di­tional diet of olive-grow­ing regions before the intro­duc­tion of fast food, large quan­ti­ties of red meats and other harm­ful habits that arose from the glob­al­iza­tion of the decades fol­low­ing World War II.

The most rel­e­vant char­ac­ter­is­tics of health­ful diets are the over­all pat­terns of foods con­sumed.- Dariush Mozaffarian, dean, Tufts University school of nutri­tion sci­ence and pol­icy

Mediterranean coun­tries are his­tor­i­cally among the health­i­est coun­tries in the world, record­ing rel­a­tively low rates of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases and can­cer, as well as longer life expectancy.

The Spain-based Mediterranean Diet Foundation, one of the most influ­en­tial orga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to research­ing and pro­mot­ing the Mediterranean diet, defines the diet as a way of life. In the foundation’s view, lifestyle and val­ues form a vital part that can not be sep­a­rated from the whole.

See Also:Olive Oil Basics

This is reflected in its Mediterranean diet pyra­mid. Unlike more famil­iar food pyra­mids, the base is built from a com­bi­na­tion of exer­cise, rest, social­iz­ing and cook­ing on the phys­i­cal front, and a com­mit­ment to sus­tain­able, local, sea­sonal, and eco-friendly food choices on the value front.

As the pres­i­dent of the foun­da­tion, Francisco Martinez Arroyo, explains, the Mediterranean diet is not just food, but a way of under­stand­ing the envi­ron­ment, of relat­ing to each other, of enjoy­ing local and sea­sonal con­sump­tion, and con­tin­u­ing to trans­mit our his­tory and cul­tural her­itage.”

The next foun­da­tional level of the pyra­mid is sim­ply water, either on its own or in the form of herbal infu­sions. As with most vari­a­tions of the Mediterranean diet, the con­sump­tion of both car­bon­ated and caf­feinated drinks is actively dis­cour­aged. The European Union-funded MedDiet project rec­om­mends drink­ing at least 1.5 to two liters of water every day.


Photo: Mediterranean Diet Foundation

Next in the pyra­mid come those foods that should be used to put together every main meal. All vari­a­tions on the Mediterranean diet pri­or­i­tize veg­eta­bles here, with two or more serv­ings per meal, and at least one being raw.

Choosing a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent col­ors and tex­tures increases the diver­sity of antiox­i­dants and vit­a­min and min­eral com­bi­na­tions. This is a tech­nique that insti­tu­tions such as the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Heart Association, and the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service have referred to as eat­ing the rain­bow.”

After veg­eta­bles come fruit and cere­als. Although all cere­als pro­vide nec­es­sary car­bo­hy­drates, whole grains are prefer­able because they retain many valu­able nutri­ents and sig­nif­i­cantly more fiber. Studies in India, for exam­ple, have sug­gested that recent large increases in type 2 dia­betes in the coun­try are due in part to refined grains tak­ing the place of more tra­di­tional unprocessed forms.

Also at this level is olive oil. Olive oil, par­tic­u­larly extra vir­gin olive oil (EVOO,) is per­haps the most well-known com­po­nent of the Mediterranean diet. The total amount of lipids (fats and oils) in these types of diets is often off-putting to peo­ple used to fol­low­ing North American or Northern European nutri­tional guides.

The lipids from olive oil are monoun­sat­u­rated, how­ever. The dis­cov­ery that monoun­sat­u­rated fat could be ben­e­fi­cial came from the famous Seven Countries Study of the 1960s.

See Also:Health News

It revealed that peo­ple in Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean enjoyed a low rate of heart dis­ease despite a high-fat diet. The main fat in their diet, though, was not the sat­u­rated ani­mal fat com­mon in coun­tries with higher rates of heart dis­ease, but olive oil. EVOO addi­tion­ally con­tains higher con­cen­tra­tions of var­i­ous com­pounds such as polyphe­nols.

At the every­day level of the pyra­mid come olives, nuts and seeds, pri­mar­ily for snack­ing or as side dishes, which intro­duce extra sources of pro­teins, vit­a­mins, min­er­als and fiber; and twice-daily serv­ings of low-fat dairy prod­ucts.


Wild asparagus at a Greek market

While an excess of sat­u­rated fat has been asso­ci­ated with increased heart dis­ease, small amounts are nec­es­sary as part of a bal­anced diet. In most forms of the Mediterranean diet, these are pro­vided by a mod­er­ate intake of dairy prod­ucts, which also pro­vide vital sources of cal­cium.

Also at the every­day level are herbs, spices, onion and gar­lic. Not only do these add vari­ety and enjoy­ment to both cook­ing and eat­ing, but many have also been shown to have pos­i­tive effects on the immune sys­tem, as well as inher­ent anti-bac­te­r­ial, anti-viral and anti-fun­gal prop­er­ties.


Finally, there are those foods that add addi­tional sources of both plant and ani­mal pro­teins through­out the week. Fish, seafood, legumes (beans, pulses, etc.,) eggs, and white meat are the most impor­tant part of this group.

A very small quan­tity of red and processed meat can be ben­e­fi­cial but should be kept to a min­i­mum. This is also the case for pota­toes, gen­er­ally used as an ingre­di­ent in cer­tain tra­di­tional recipes. Foods and drinks con­tain­ing refined sug­ars are regarded as items saved for spe­cial occa­sions, and not for reg­u­lar con­sump­tion.

Both the Mediterranean Diet Foundation and the MedDiet project rec­om­mend mod­er­ate por­tion sizes for all meals of the day, although this is much less impor­tant than over­all diet qual­ity accord­ing to Dariush Mozaffarian, a car­di­ol­o­gist and dean at Tufts University’s school of nutri­tion sci­ence and pol­icy.

See Also:5 Things Everyone Should Know About Olive Oil

He points out that sub­op­ti­mal diet qual­ity is now the lead­ing mod­i­fi­able cause of death and dis­abil­ity in the world. In con­trast to the erro­neous notions that diet quan­tity – how much a per­son eats – or iso­lated sin­gle nutri­ents are most impor­tant, the most rel­e­vant char­ac­ter­is­tics of health­ful diets are the over­all pat­terns of foods con­sumed.”

In his view, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best ways to increase people’s over­all diet qual­ity, say­ing, tri­als con­sis­tently demon­strate sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fi­cial effects of Mediterranean-type diets and their com­po­nents on car­diometa­bolic risk fac­tors and dis­ease end­points.”

Mediterranean diets also improve glycemic con­trol and reduce the inci­dence of type 2 dia­betes,” Mozaffarian con­cluded. The key com­po­nents of Mediterranean diets are also ben­e­fi­cial for weight loss in obese patients and for pre­vent­ing long-term weight gain in non-obese pop­u­la­tions.”

Following the Mediterranean diet, in whole or in part, is remark­ably sim­ple com­pared to the raft of health ben­e­fits that it can bring.

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