What is it?
The name conjures up images of golden-skinned Greek gods and goddesses, sapphire blue sea shores, and exotic Italian vacations. But really, the Mediterranean Diet isn't about richness at all. Instead, it's about finding depth and range in simple, fresh foods, while staying healthy and fit in the most natural way possible. It's based on the traditional eating habits of the poor coastal regions of Southern Italy, Crete, and Greece and was initially promoted by Dr. Ancel Keys, who studied the eating habits of a small Italian fishing village for more than a quarter century. In the 1990's, Dr. Walter Willet of Harvard University codified the diet in the form that is recognizable today.
The essential elements of the diet are:
- Lots of vegetables and legumes
- Fresh fruit every day
- Olive oil as the principal source of fat
- Dairy products, mostly as yogurt and cheese
- Fish and poultry in moderate amounts
- Very little red meat
- 0-4 eggs a week
- Red wine in moderate amounts
Typically the Mediterranean diet includes primarily whole-grain and unprocessed carbohydrates that have very few unhealthy trans-fats. Nuts (part of the legume family) are a big part of a typical Mediterranean diet, and while nuts are high in fat and calories, they are very low in unhealthy saturated fats and high in healthy, polyunsaturated fats.
It seems like every day a new study is published showing a benefit of the Mediterranean Diet. Besides being a pretty successful weight loss diet — in clinical tests, it was shown to help dieters lose weight in amounts comparable to low-carb diets and even better than low-fat diets — the Mediterranean Diet has also been shown to lower the risk of:
- dying from heart disease
- dying from cancer
- developing Type 2 diabetes
- raised cholesterol levels
- becoming obese
- developing Alzheimer's disease
- developing Parkinson's disease
Pros & Cons
There's something for everyone in the Mediterranean Diet. Its guidelines do limit some types of food, but unlike many other diets, this one does not restrict anything outright. It's a diet that is both effective for those trying to lose weight and for those who simply want to live longer, happier, and healthier lives. It is heart-healthy, brain healthy, and healthy for pretty much every system in your body. It's hard to believe, but people living in Mediterranean countries have significantly lower rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes than northern European and American countries.
The problem is that it's not really a "diet" in the way most people might expect (i.e., weight loss). It's almost more of a lifestyle choice that has proven health benefits, and dieters will need to relearn how to shop and cook. There's also no calorie counting, no carb counting, no advice on portion sizes, and no "steps" or "phases." Consequently, people who need strict limitations and set-in-stone rules for success might have a hard time staying on this diet.
We like this diet because of its approach to eating and because it has been proven to do all sorts of healthy things. The problem is that it may not offer a stark enough contrast with normal eating habits to make a difference for the less motivated dieter. It relies primarily on your willingness to shop properly, learn how to prepare food in a healthy way, and to choose wisely off restaurant menus. If you're not willing to make a lifestyle change of your own accord, the Mediterranean Diet is probably not going to work for you. Also, be careful of the suggestion to drink red wine. While the diet suggests only small amounts, the benefits of drinking red wine are still not entirely clear, and the health consequences of excessive drinking are severe. Always, always, always drink in moderation — no more than five ounces of wine a day for women and no more than 10 ounces of wine a day for men. If you're at risk for alcohol-related diseases, just leave wine off the menu entirely.
On the other hand, the Mediterranean Diet is well balanced, functional, and oftentimes delicious. There are really no health-related drawbacks to it. It's a diet you can maintain for the rest of your life with no resulting negative health issues, and it teaches you how to recognize healthy foods on your own. Another thing we like here at Healthline is that the Mediterranean Diet plan attempts to address other food-related lifestyle issues that are problematic in our culture. For example, it asks that you try to eat meals in the company of others, to eat slowly, and to savor your food. In addition to being conducive to physical health, the Mediterranean Diet may also provide untold additional mental health benefits.