- The Mediterranean diet has been named the top diet by U.S. News & World Report for six consecutive years.
- Experts say the diet, which prioritizes produce, lean or plant-based proteins, and healthy fats, deserves praise.
- A growing body of evidence suggests that the diet has a large number of potential health benefits.
The Mediterranean diet has been named No. 1 on the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Diets for the last six years and health experts say there are a number of reasons why.
“The Mediterranean diet is considered healthy because it emphasizes whole, nutrient-dense foods and limits processed and refined foods, which are often high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and salt,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “This way of eating is also rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats, which are associated with a range of health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and cognitive decline.”
A growing body of research suggests that the benefits Best mentioned have merit. And, unlike restrictive — and less recommended diets like keto (ranked 20th out of 24 diets on the U.S. News & World Report list) — experts say the Mediterranean diet is sustainable.
“There is no strict definition of the Mediterranean diet,” says Joanna Troulakis, MD, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. “It incorporates the healthy components of several different countries’ diets. Rather than focusing on strict formulas and calculations, it is based on overall eating patterns. As such, it can be tailored to meet an individual’s preferences and goals.”
You’ve likely heard the Mediterranean diet is “healthy,” but what does that mean?
In the last year alone, peer-reviewed studies have indicated an array of health benefits. Here are just a few of the specific ways in which it can help boost your health.
1. Better sleep
A 2022 literature review looked at previous research to assess the effect of a Mediterranean diet on the number of hours people slept per night — and the quality of those Zzz’s. The findings suggest that the more someone adheres to a Mediterranean diet, the more likely they are to get longer and better sleep.
One healthcare provider says the foods emphasized and de-emphasized in the Mediterranean diet likely play a role.
“The Mediterranean diet is low in processed foods and refined carbohydrates and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats like fish,” says Denise Pate, MD, a board-certified physician and Medical Director with Medical Offices of Manhattan. “Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been demonstrated to improve sleep, are also abundant in the Mediterranean diet.”
Pate says walnuts, flax seeds, and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
“These fatty acids can aid in regulating the body’s melatonin production, a hormone that is essential for controlling sleep,” Pate says.
2. Reduce inflammation
In November of 2022, a published review of previous research indicated that adhering to the Mediterranean diet could have anti-inflammatory benefits that could protect against diseases like heart disease and COVID-19.
“The study suggests that a diet high in plant-based foods, whole grains, and healthy fats may help reduce inflammation in the body,” says Best. “The researchers found that participants who followed a diet rich in these foods had lower levels of inflammatory markers in their blood.”
Mary Sabat MS, RDN, LD notes that researchers called out the diet’s potential to improve the gut microbiome and that inflammation is the basis for diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
“Reducing inflammation in the diet is a primary concern for anyone looking to remain well,” Sabat says.
However, Best believes more research is needed on the Mediterranean diet’s relationship to inflammation.
“Possible reasons for the anti-inflammatory effects of this type of diet include the presence of antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds in plant-based foods, the promotion of a healthy gut microbiome, and the reduction of unhealthy fats and added sugars that can contribute to inflammation,” Best says.
3. Increase lifespan
A 36-year study of more than 75,000 women and more than 44,000 men, published in January 2023, listed the Mediterranean diet as one of four diets consistently associated with a reduced risk of all-cause or cause-specific death. Causes of death the authors mentioned included cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory disease.
“The Mediterranean diet is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, which are all rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” says Pate. “These foods have been linked to reduced inflammation, improved immune function, and a lower risk of chronic diseases.”
Healthy fats, such as the ones found in olive oil and nuts, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and monosaturated fats.
“[They] have been shown to improve heart health, lower cholesterol, and reduce inflammation,” Pate says.
Though the diet doesn’t take anything off the table, it does call for reducing the consumption of specific foods.
“The Mediterranean diet is low in red meat and saturated fats, which have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases,” says Pate.
4. Lower risk of heart disease in women
A systemic review and meta-analysis of 16 studies indicated that women who followed a Mediterranean diet more closely were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Women with higher adherence to the diet were less likely to die of heart disease or develop coronary heart disease. Stroke incidence in women was also lower in this population, but researchers said it was not statistically significant.
Troulakis says the study didn’t delve into how the Mediterranean diet might protect against cardiovascular disease but says it’s valuable data.
“The various mechanisms are well known,” Troulakis says. “By limiting saturated and trans fats, the diet decreases LDL — or bad — cholesterol, which causes plaque buildup in the arteries, or atherosclerosis, and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. By encouraging healthy unsaturated fats, it combats inflammation and promotes brain health.”
5. Reduces dementia risk
A study published in March of 2023 followed more than 60,000 participants for an average of 9.1 years to evaluate the link between diet and dementia risk. The research indicated that people who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely had lower dementia risks.
“The research suggests that consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, and low in red meat and saturated fats can help protect the brain from cognitive decline,” Best says.
Again, the research didn’t dive into the reasons this diet may help reduce dementia risk.
“Possible reasons why a Mediterranean diet could promote brain health include reducing inflammation, oxidative stress, and insulin resistance, as well as improving cardiovascular and metabolic health,” Best hypothesizes.
6. Lowers prostate cancer odds
A 2022 study examined 116 plasma samples of Caucasian men with late-onset prostate cancer and 132 matched controls. They analyzed them for micronutrients. Individuals in the prostate cancer group were found to have significantly lower blood levels of lycopene, lutein, α-carotene, and β-carotene than those in the control group.
Sabat notes that these nutrients are found in foods in the Mediterranean diet. For example, watermelon and tomatoes have lycopene, and selenium is a mineral in plant-based foods like nuts and grains.
“The study clearly indicates that those men with higher concentrations of micronutrients such as selenium and beta carotene had a lower risk of cancer than men that did not have good levels of micronutrients,” Sabat says. “What it was unable to determine, however, was if these higher micronutrient levels were related to a healthier diet.”
As with the other studies, the nutrients likely provide protective benefits.
“It is thought that [these nutrients] may help reduce inflammation and oxidative damage in the body, which is associated with an increased risk of cancer,” says Sabat. “They may also help to regulate hormones, which are also thought to be involved in the development of prostate cancer.”
7. May benefit vision as you age
Sabat explains that macular degeneration affects the central part of the retina in the eye, known as the macula.
“It is a common cause of vision loss in people over the age of 50 and can lead to a decrease in sharpness of vision, difficulty recognizing faces and colors, and a decrease in the ability to see in low-light conditions,” Sabat says. “Treatment options can include dietary changes, nutritional supplements, and in some cases, medications, or surgery.”
In light of recent research, adherence to a Mediterranean diet may be recommended. A 2022 systematic review of 20 studies indicated that adherence to a Mediterranean diet contributes to a lower risk of progressing from early to late age-related macular degeneration.
“The study found that people with higher consumptions of b-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, copper, folate, magnesium, vitamin A, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and omega-3 fatty acids were associated with a lower risk of progression of macular degeneration,” Sabat says.
Though the Meditteranean diet doesn’t call for complete abstention from alcohol, it does advise lowering intake — another potential benefit.
“They also found that alcohol increases the risk and negatively affects macular degeneration,” Sabat says.
8. Boost mental health
The Mediterranean diet may have more than just physical benefits. A small, 12-week 2022 study of 72 men ages 18 to 25 with moderate to severe depression compared the Mediterranean diet to befriending therapy, a modality that involves introducing a patient to at least one other person in hopes of providing them with more social support. The participants who followed the Mediterranean diet reported better quality of life than the group that received befriending therapy.
Sabat says the reasons for these results might include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables have vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which boost brain functioning
- Fiber regulates blood pressure, which may aid in reducing anxiety and depression
- Omega-3 fatty acids may boost mood and lower inflammation
- Improved gut health, which can affect mood
How to start the Mediterranean diet
Sold on trying out the Mediterranean diet but unsure where to start? Change can be challenging. Experts suggest starting small.
“Choose one meal and make it Mediterranean,” suggests Natalie Allen, RD, a registered dietician and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Sports Medicine at Missouri State University. “For example, if you make an omelet for breakfast, replace meat with healthy veggies like tomatoes and spinach.”
Best says a sample menu might look like:
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with fresh berries and a drizzle of honey, and whole grain toast with almond butter
- Snack: A handful of almonds and a piece of fruit
- Lunch: A mixed greens salad with tuna, vegetables, and a dressing made with olive oil and lemon juice, and a whole grain roll
- Snack: Raw veggies with hummus
- Dinner: Grilled salmon with lemon, herbs, and olive oil, roasted vegetables (such as zucchini, bell peppers, and eggplant), and a small portion of whole-grain pasta or quinoa
- Dessert: Fresh fruit or a small serving of dark chocolate
Remember, you don’t have to skip out on traditional, once-yearly favorites, like Thanksgiving pie or homemade ice cream on the 4th of July.
“A healthy diet focuses on balance, moderation, and variety,” Allen says. “Certainly, on your birthday, indulge in a piece of cake.”
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