There’s a reason why the Mediterranean diet consistently ranks as the best diet overall by U.S. News & World Report and is a favorite among dietitians: New studies regularly pop up touting its vast health benefits.
“It is well studied and can be integrated into practically anyone's current dietary choices,” explains Jessi Holden, registered dietitian and creator of the Kitchen Invitation. She tells Yahoo Life that the Mediterranean diet encourages people to eat a variety of foods and focus on adding nutrition to their day as opposed to restricting and eliminating certain foods.
Here’s what you need to know about this popular eating plan.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
American physiologist Ancel Keys first termed the Mediterranean diet in the 1950’s when his Seven Countries Study discovered that the dietary patterns in some European Mediterranean countries had lower rates of heart disease and all-cause mortality. Instead of being overly restrictive, the diet follows the general eating habits of these countries.
These dietary principles can be applied to any cuisine by prioritizing plant-based foods and unsaturated fats, while limiting saturated fats, ultraprocessed foods, added sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Foods in the Mediterranean diet include:
Fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruits
Nuts and seeds
Whole grains and cereals
Extra virgin olive oil
Fish and seafood two to three times per week
Dairy and eggs in moderation
Spices and herbs in place of salt
Limited poultry and rarely red meat
Water is the go-to beverage, although a glass of wine is common with meals. However, experts do not recommend starting to drink alcohol if you aren’t already doing so. If you do include wine with meals, stick to 5 ounces or less per day.
Maya Oueichek, dietitian and Mediterranean diet expert, says she appreciates that the Mediterranean way of eating also encourages meals to be enjoyed in a social setting with friends and family. It “fosters a positive relationship with food and contributes to overall well-being,” she tells Yahoo Life.
While the diet seems easy to follow, it’s important to note that fresh fruits and vegetables are not accessible to all. However, using frozen or canned produce is a great way to get in key nutrients. Additionally, if meat is a staple in your current diet, making the shift to eating less of it might pose a challenge.
What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
Most people can benefit from following a Mediterranean style of eating because it's high in vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, polyphenols and antioxidants.
People may want to consider this diet in particular if they’re at risk for heart disease or other chronic diseases, or are simply looking for a flexible and balanced eating plan. As a bonus, the Mediterranean diet is environmentally sustainable too.
Here’s what recent research is saying about the diet’s benefits:
Protects against the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially in women. One study of nearly 26,000 U.S. women found up to a 28% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease when they closely followed the Mediterranean diet. The diet’s positive impact on inflammation and blood sugar likely contributed to these findings. Other studies also saw a similar 24% lower risk of cardiovascular disease in women who kept to it.
Reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. When researchers looked at the nutritional biomarkers of following this diet, they noticed that high adherence reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by about 11%. These results suggest the diet has a greater impact on preventing the onset of diabetes than previously believed.
Increases gut bacteria that promotes healthier aging. Researchers looked at the effects on the gut microbiome in over 600 European-based residents who followed the Mediterranean diet for 12 months. What they found was that, independent of age and body mass index, the diet changed the gut microbiome in a direction positively associated with health, showing a reduction in risk of frailty, reduced inflammatory status and improved cognitive function.
Lowers risk of dementia. A 2023 study with more than 60,000 U.K. participants found that, independent of genetic risk, those with higher adherence to the diet reduced the chance of developing dementia by up to 23% in comparison to those with low to moderate adherence.
Improves child neurodevelopmental outcomes. More recently, a study learned that mothers at high risk for having babies small for gestational age who followed the Mediterranean diet while pregnant significantly improved their children’s cognitive, language, social and emotional development at age 2 versus pregnant mothers who did not eat this way.
Leads to longer and better quality sleep. A 2022 review of 17 different studies noticed adolescents and adults following this eating plan achieved adequate sleep and had better quality sleep with reduced risk of insomnia symptoms. One study even found that pregnant women had better quality sleep on the Mediterranean diet.
Improves symptoms of depression. After following more than 49,000 women in Sweden for about 20 years, researchers observed that a Mediterranean style of eating at middle age may lead to lower risk of depression later in life. More recently, a study found that young men ages 18 to 25 with moderate to severe depression who ate this way for 12 weeks reported improvement in their symptoms and quality of life, with 36% of participants reporting low or minimal depression at the end of the study.
Reduces risk of the onset of cancer and death by cancer. Consistently following the Mediterranean diet may be a protective factor against the onset of cancer thanks to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil, fruits and vegetables. A U.K. study also saw up to a 28% lower risk for cancer mortality and 29% lower risk for all-cause mortality with adherence to this lifestyle.
The Mediterranean diet is a well-rounded way to eat nourishing foods, and there’s an abundance of research that shows the health-promoting impact of following this type of lifestyle.
If you’re interested in trying out the Mediterranean diet, Holden recommends taking it slowly when switching from your current eating habits. “Making gradual changes is not only more sustainable, but it allows for flexibility and grace,” she says.
Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.