The Mediterranean diet has its roots in regions around the sea with the same name. Societies around the Mediterranean Sea have been eating foods made with certain key, yet diverse ingredients for millennia, including: olive oil; grapes; wheat and lentils; and fish. The diet took center stage in the 1960s when Ancel Keys and Flaminio Fidanza observed that the Cretan diet was correlated with a lower incidence of coronary heart disease. Since then, a wider body of research has supported these and other positive findings, cementing the diet’s place as a healthier way of eating in modern society. Among many other leading medical organizations, the American Diabetes Organization endorses the diet, correlating it with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D). In this article, we will help you take your first steps toward reaping the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. We’ll talk about its features, the nutritional and health benefits, and easy ways you can incorporate this healthy eating regimen into your daily life. So, here’s how to start the Mediterranean diet.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The initial definition of the Mediterranean diet related to the eating patterns common in the Greek Islands and Italy in the 1960s. Further research into the 18 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea shows that several different definitions of this diet exist, depending on the geographic region. However, a handful of common features exist:
- A plant-based diet: This diet is rich in foods derived from high-fiber plants, ranging from wheat to fruits and vegetables. Fiber provides a wide range of metabolic benefits, such as being a vital nutrient source for your gut microbes and preventing diarrhea and constipation. (Learn more: How to start a plant-based diet.)
- A natural diet: The Mediterranean diet minimizes the consumption of processed foods. All foods eaten in this diet are derived from naturally grown and fresh foods.
- Rich in unsaturated fats: This feature of the Mediterranean diet is the one most highlighted by leading medical organizations when recommending this eating pattern for its health benefits. For instance, one of the diet’s key ingredients, olive oil, is comprised of 75% monounsaturated fat. Olive oil acts as an excellent alternative to other cooking oils if you want to lower your blood cholesterol levels.
- Moderated protein levels: The protein levels eaten in the Mediterranean diet are typically about 20% lower than in a typical Western diet. Much of the protein in a Mediterranean diet is obtained from fish, while red meats and eggs are consumed less frequently. Dairy-based products (also rich in proteins) are also consumed more moderately in this diet, which appears associated with its own set of medical benefits.
- Limited processed sweets: The predominant type of sweets consumed in the Mediterranean diet are fruits, rather than refined or processed sweets such as pastries, reducing the risk of fluctuating blood glucose levels.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Before you learn how to start the Mediterranean diet, let’s dig into the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This healthy diet is an excellent alternative to a vegan or vegetarian diet if you don’t wish to entirely eliminate meat and fish from your diet. But what makes the Mediterranean diet a popular choice for a healthy lifestyle? An important consideration lies in the many protective effects against diseases that the diet provides.
- Cardiovascular disease (CVD): A 2019 meta-analysis showed that the Mediterranean diet protects against total CVD, ischemic stroke, and coronary heart disease. A key contributor to these benefits seemed to stem from the supplementation of extra-virgin olive oil or nuts, which appeared to protect more individuals (starting the study with diagnosed CVD risk) from having a major cardiovascular event. Eating olive oil, nuts, and polyphenols (from a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables) provides antioxidant capabilities that protect against CVD.
- Type 2 diabetes (T2D): The Mediterranean diet is also associated with reduced T2D risk. Among female healthcare workers with obesity, those who followed a Mediterranean diet had 30% less risk of developing T2D 20 years later, stemming from the association with lowered blood glucose levels (as determined in a 2015 meta-analysis). The data supporting the diet’s ability to regulate blood glucose levels is so strong that the American Diabetes Association has recommended the diet for blood glucose control. The controlled intake of sodium, another feature of the Mediterranean diet, may also contribute to reduced T2D risk. Lastly, olive oil consumption may also help reduce T2D risk; a cohort of adult women who consumed olive oil instead of other fats saw a modest reduction in T2D risk.
- Gastrointestinal diseases (GI): People adopting the Mediterranean diet also see medical benefits in their gut function. People who supplemented a Western Diet with plant foodstuffs typical of the Mediterranean diet saw an increased abundance of short-chain fatty acid (SCFA)-producing bacteria. SCFAs, such as butyrate, provide a wide range of benefits to gut integrity, function, and immune protection. These protective effects derive in part from the high fiber consumption characteristic of the Mediterranean diet.
- Obesity: Adopting a Mediterranean diet may also help with weight loss. A 2008 meta-analysis of 21 studies showed, in 13 of them, that significant weight loss was achieved among people who adopted a Mediterranean diet. The diet has been so successful with weight loss that there are efforts to encourage governments to promote the diet for preventing the oncoming obesity epidemic. Part of the success in preventing obesity comes from the diet being rich in polyphenols, compounds which protect against oxidative stress and inflammation related to obesity.
- Mental health: Children and adolescents from Spain who adopted a Mediterranean diet saw improved levels of happiness and better quality of life. Similar results were also observed among adults, where eating a Mediterranean-style diet supplemented with fish oil has been associated with reduced depressive symptoms. Taking up the Mediterranean diet could also help reduce the risk of Parkinson’s Disease, as a 2021 study determined.
How to start the Mediterranean diet
The many benefits of starting a Mediterranean diet make it an appealing choice for anyone eager to live a healthy lifestyle. However, with so many cultures taking a unique approach to the diet, it can be intimidating to decide which foods work best for you when beginning such a meal plan. To make it easier for you, we’ll begin with a list of foods that comprise a key part of this diet, helping you learn how to start a Mediterranean diet:
- Fish: With many coastal societies based around and in the Mediterranean Sea, it stands to reason that fish is a central component of the Mediterranean diet. Many kinds of edible fish exist in the Mediterranean Sea, including salmon, tuna, sardines, and anchovies. Salmon and tuna provide an excellent source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Fish also contain a rich source of proteins that improve body composition, reduce hypertension, and regulate sugar metabolism.
- Fruits and vegetables: Both categories of plant-based foods are far richer in antioxidants than most non-plant foods. Nutrients include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols, and carotenoids. Fruits are also rich in minerals, such as zinc and magnesium, while vegetables provide dietary fiber, potassium, and many other minerals.
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes: These three excellent plant-based sources of protein are integral to a Mediterranean diet. Nuts and seeds are easy to integrate gently into your diet and they reduce the risk of multiple diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
- Dairy: The Mediterranean diet features cheeses and yogurts in abundance while limiting the consumption of milk. Among all dairy foods, yogurt provides the strongest correlation with lowered T2D risk. While the research linking dairy consumption to reduced T2D risk remains mixed, yogurt provides an excellent source of probiotics that is associated with keeping your guts operating optimally.
- Olive oil: Produced by extracting the oils generated by pressing whole olives, olive oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, which have a single kink in their molecular structure. Eating monounsaturated fats — as opposed to saturated fats — helps reduce the risk of CVD, benefits your immune system, and improves your body’s control of blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
The Mediterranean diet also moderates the consumption of certain foods, so consider cutting back on the following food products:
- Added sugars: Unlike the naturally occurring sugars found in fruits and milk, “added sugars” are typically found in syrups, honey, or sweetened drinks; or are even introduced before eating a meal, either in the preparation or processing steps. The ingestion of added sugars is consistently correlated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The Mediterranean diet minimizes the intake of such added sugars, favoring instead the consumption of fruits for dessert instead of highly processed desserts such as cakes or cookies.
- Refined grains: All wheat flours are produced from wheat kernels, which are comprised of the bran, endosperm, and wheat germ. Many of the nutrients that wheat provides come from the bran and germ layers. Refined grains, by contrast, have their bran and germ layers removed when the flours are ground and milled. Accordingly, consider replacing the refined grains you eat with whole-wheat bread, such as homemade olive bread.
- Red meat: While it represents a good source of protein, vitamins, iron, and zinc, red meat (consumed in excess) is associated with an increased risk of multiple kinds of cancers, stroke, and diabetes. If you still want to eat a moderate amount of meat in your diet, consider eating chicken or turkey instead of red meat.
So, how do you start the Mediterranean diet? The Mediterranean diet, in its many varied but related forms, is associated with longer, healthier lives because it features whole foods that are low in unhealthy fats and added/processed sugars and higher in fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants. As a result, this eating pattern is correlated with reduced risks of heart disease, obesity, T2D, and certain cancers. Best of all, there are limitless and delicious ways in which you can get started on this healthy diet.