The Real Reason Everyone Raves About The Mediterranean Diet

Every year diet trends seem to pop up quickly and disappear just as fast as they came. On the other hand, some stick around far longer and one of them is the Mediterranean diet, and for good reason: The Mediterranean diet food list is not only well-rounded but also very satisfying.

ICYMI, the Mediterranean diet refers to the traditional eating habits among those who live in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (think: Italy and Greece), according to the American Heart Association (AHA). As there are 16 countries in this region, there is no one standard Mediterranean diet per se. But there are a few common basic principles.

This style of eating emphasizes an abundance of highly nutritious foods, including beans and legumes, fruits, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, olive oil, vegetables, whole grains, and fish or other seafood at least twice a week, says Morgan Porpora, RD, an NYC-based nutritionist. “This way of eating focuses heavily on a variety of nutrients that provide healthy fats, like monounsaturated fats and omega-3s, fiber, phenolic antioxidants, and phytonutrients, which are all associated with improved health and reduced disease,” she explains.

Moderate amounts of cheese, eggs, poultry, and yogurt can also be incorporated throughout the week, while red meat and processed sugar-containing carbs are limited. The diet also allows for low to moderate amounts of red wine, in addition to plenty of water.

Okay, so this may sound super delicious and all, but what are the perks of following the Mediterranean Diet?

Meet the experts: Morgan Porpora, RD, is a nutritionist with Nutrition by Nathalie and a certified integrative health coach.

Cara Harbstreet, RD, focuses on sports nutrition, intuitive eating, and applying the Health At Every Size model for clients.

The Mediterranean diet packs a lot of benefits.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most well-researched diets for the prevention and treatment of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, per Porpora. It may even slow aging.

Here are some of the Mediterranean Diet’s biggest selling points when it comes to its health benefits.

It lowers lipids.

The Mediterranean Diet may have a lipid-lowering effect, according to a 2018 study published in The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

As the Mediterranean diet is full of healthy fats, minimally processed foods, and fiber, it focuses on healthy fats like monounsaturated fats in olive oil and omega-3’s in fish, says Porpora. These types of fat are associated with fighting inflammation, lowering cholesterol, and reducing the risk of heart disease, among other things.

Additionally, the Mediterranean diet is low in processed foods, refined grains, and sugar, all of which may contribute to high triglycerides (too much can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke). Instead, the diet is rich in beans, legumes, and whole grains, which are all excellent sources of dietary fiber and also support lowering cholesterol.

It may help balance the gut microbiome.

The composition of your diet has a huge impact on your gut microbiome, and fiber is a preferred food for our gut microbes, explains Porpora.

The abundance of fiber-rich foods in the Mediterranean diet means feeding all of those good gut microbes and increasing the diversity of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. These good microbes produce short-chain fatty acids, which can cut down on inflammation, support immunity, support our gut lining, regulate metabolism, and more.

“Especially compared to a standard western diet, the composition of meals in a Mediterranean Diet is so much better for our gut,” says Porpora.

It may help with glycemic control and weight loss.

Since this diet is rich in fiber, healthy fats, low-glycemic foods, plants, and protein, and is low in refined grains and sugar, meals are generally well balanced and can help maintain blood sugar control, which may help with glycemic control and weight loss, according to Porpora.

A 2021 review published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that this diet has been linked to improved markers of glycemic control, including fasting glucose, insulin, and hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c). Even without intentional calorie restriction, shifting the composition of a diet towards this pattern of eating often results in reduced central adiposity (that weight around the belly) and weight loss, according to a 2022 study in the journal Nutrients.

It protects against inflammation and oxidative stress.

This dietary pattern incorporates an abundance of foods high in antioxidant vitamins, minerals, phenolic compounds, and phytonutrients that come from all of the fruits, olive oil, nuts and seeds, veggies, whole grains, and even the red wine that accompanies this lifestyle, says Porpora.

This large diversity of colors, foods, and nutrients is thought to have a synergistic effect to lower inflammation and fight oxidative stress. “By getting these two processes under control, we are able to function optimally, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and stay resilient in a world filled with so many stressors and micro-exposures to environmental toxins,” notes Porpora.

It reduces the risk of several types of cancers and prevents cognitive decline.

A 2022 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that strict adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2021 review in the European Journal of Nutrition found that following the Mediterranean diet could lower the risk of cancer mortality and the risk of bladder, colorectal, gastric, head and neck, liver, and respiratory cancers, while a 2018 study published in Nutrients found that this dietary pattern is associated with reduced breast cancer risk.

An often overlooked benefit of the Mediterranean Diet is its flexibility. “The wonderful thing about the Mediterranean diet is that it’s not really a ‘diet’ at all, but rather a style of eating,” says Cara Harbstreet, RD, of Street Smart Nutrition. “The wide variety of foods that comprise the Mediterranean diet leaves plenty of room for taste preferences, seasonal or local eating, and can help you eat in a way that feels authentic to you.”

Instead of focusing on weight loss, this approach supports healthy habits, like eating more fruits and vegetables, says Harbstreet. “Because of its flexible nature, there is more opportunity to adapt it to fit your individual lifestyle,” she says.

Want more healthy eating insight? Check out how this professional ballerina fuels her active life:

The Mediterranean diet is pretty easy to follow.

“The premise is avoiding over-processed, packaged foods and enjoying fresh, whole foods whenever possible,” says Emily Kyle, RDN. That means keeping processed meat (think: hot dogs), refined grains (white bread), refined oils (vegetable), and added sugars to a minimum. “This simple approach makes the Mediterranean diet a bit easier to understand and, ultimately, implement in real life.”

The best part is that there are a variety of cuisines and ingredients in the Mediterranean region, which means a ton of options. “The Mediterranean diet is a more flexible approach to eating than other diets,” says Harbstreet. “It even allows for moderate alcohol consumption, such as red wine.” Yes, please!

This is your ultimate Mediterranean diet food list.

If you’re interested in following a Mediterranean style of eating, here’s your cheat sheet of which foods to eat:

food, the real reason everyone raves about the mediterranean diet

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  • Fruits. Any and all fresh fruits such as apples, oranges, pears, melon, grapes, berries, dates, figs, peaches, and grapefruit. (Kyle says it’s okay to include frozen fruit with no added ingredients, and canned fruit in water or light juice, too.)
  • Vegetables. Any and all fresh vegetables like tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, kale, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers, peppers, summer squash, and onions. Don’t forget about root vegetables like sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, and parsnips. (Frozen vegetables with no added ingredients and canned vegetables like tomatoes are okay, too.)
  • Whole grains. Whole grains, plus bread and pasta made with whole-grain ingredients. This includes whole wheat, oats, barley, rye, quinoa, and brown rice.
  • Nuts and seeds. Whole nuts like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, and pistachios. Seeds such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseeds.
  • Legumes. Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans.
  • Healthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil, avocados, avocado oil, walnut oil, olives.
  • Dairy. Moderate amounts of dairy items like Greek yogurt, cheese, and milk.
  • Fish and seafood. Wild-caught fish and shellfish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, shrimp, tuna, trout, and clams.
  • Other animal protein. Moderate amounts of poultry, pork, and other lean options. Save red meat for special occasions.
  • Herbs and spices. Garlic, oregano, basil, thyme, mint, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, and more.

As you can see there’s a lot to choose from. So go forth, and make the Mediterranean diet your own.

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