What is a Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is widely recommended for a reason. Find out why it deserves its reputation as a healthy way of eating.

Last updated: Jan 2nd, 2023
What is a Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet has been touted as being among the healthiest ways of eating since the 1950s when researchers first noticed that heart disease was uncommon in people from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. In the years since, researchers found a Mediterranean diet reduces risks of stroke, heart disease, and certain types of cancer, and even promotes longevity. More recent studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean diet can also help with depression, dementia, and type 2 diabetes.

Despite the numerous benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet, there are still some questions about its practicality, considering its primarily plant-based suggestions deviate from a typical American diet. Read on to learn more about the Mediterranean diet, its benefits, meal recommendations, and some considerations to keep in mind if you’re planning to switch to the diet or incorporate more.

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What is the Mediterranean diet?

Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Lebanon, and over 18 other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea all share a mostly plant-based diet that’s low in saturated fat and high in nutrients. Combined with other healthy habits, it contributes to a lowered risk of certain diseases, increased quality of life, weight loss, and even longevity. The diet is made up of the following:

  • High consumption of mono-unsaturated (or “healthy”) fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados
  • Seasonal vegetables, herbs, beans, lentils, and fresh fruit
  • Whole grains and unprocessed cereals such as oats, rice, and barley
  • Fish and poultry

A Mediterranean diet also limits several types of food, including:

  • Red and processed meat, usually saved for special occasions
  • Dairy, except for yogurt and aged cheeses
  • Alcohol, mostly consumed during meals, although some Mediterranean diets exclude it completely
  • Sweets, with a focus on having fresh fruit for dessert or snacks

The benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Seeing a list that excludes or limits some of your favorite foods may not exactly entice you to try a Mediterranean diet. However, its health and environmental benefits might make you take a second glance.

The nutrient-rich diet has a lot to offer, from a lowered risk of disease to the potential to be among the most environmentally sustainable diets. Let’s investigate some of its most poignant benefits below.


Because the diet is mostly plant-based and high in monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocados, it’s incredibly nutrient and vitamin-rich. The diet provides significant amounts of the following nutrients in particular.

Vitamin C

Found in fruits and vegetables, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin important for fighting sickness and infection, wound healing, and collagen formation.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant and fat-soluble vitamin responsible for heart health and immune system functioning.


Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is found in many foods but is most prominent in dark and leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as legumes, seafood, and more. It guards against neural tube defects, making it important to take during pregnancy. It also has some cancer-fighting properties and contributes to healthy heart function.


Found in vegetables, grain, tea, flowers, and even wine, flavonoids are a kind of compound with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and, in some cases, even cancer-fighting properties.


These compounds are plentiful in the Mediterranean diet, largely due to its high consumption of olive oil, vegetables, and fresh fruit. Polyphenols are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, vital in fighting cancer and cell degeneration.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in nuts, seeds, and seafood. They provide numerous health benefits, including improving heart health and vision, as well as reducing the risk of cancer, strokes, and some cognitive diseases.

Lowered risk of disease

A Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower the risk of many diseases. One famous study, called the PREDIMED study, found that following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with regular amounts of olive oil and nuts reduced the death rate from stroke in participants by 30%. Additionally, the diet is protective against Type 2 diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases, and studies have found it promotes weight loss and healthy weight management.

Of course, the key to lowering your disease risk is moderation and portion size, as in any diet. Excessive caloric intake in any diet may not help your weight loss. Another important study found that following a Mediterranean diet, along with healthy habits like exercise and abstaining from smoking, could reduce the risk of early death in adults aged 44-84 by up to 80%.

While it may seem contradictory that a diet so high in fat could offer so many health benefits, it all comes down to the fat you’re eating. Most of the fats consumed in a Mediterranean diet are monounsaturated (from olive oil and nuts) and polyunsaturated (primarily from fish and seeds) fats. These fats can lower LDL (or “bad” cholesterol) levels over time, improve heart health, and lower blood pressure.

Cancer remains a hot topic surrounding the Mediterranean diet, as there needs to be more research on specific types of cancers and other environmental, genetic, or physiological factors involved in developing cancer. However, because the Mediterranean diet is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients, some studies have found that it lowers the risk of many cancers, particularly breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer. How much it reduces your risk depends on how closely you follow the diet and if you consume alcohol. And, of course, a Mediterranean diet isn’t a cure, nor will it completely prevent any illness, especially something as complicated as cancer.


Eating with the seasons was a big part of the Mediterranean diet before globalization expanded its reach with imported food, prepackaged goods, and novelties. Before, the rich biodiversity in the Mediterranean region (and perhaps the lack of an abundance of imported goods at the time) forced people to eat from the abundance of fruits, vegetables, and grains that were in season in their villages and towns. The freshness of the produce had more potent health benefits as none of them were frozen or preserved, leaving their nutrients intact and immediately available. The availability of seasonal food also made main meals the focus of the diet, leaving less room for snacking and encouraging people to eat together and share food.

In recent years there have been attempts to revive the seasonality aspect of the Mediterranean diet and bring awareness to the respective cultures, traditions, and way of life the diet represents. Eating with the seasons means it’s more likely that you’ll pay less for food that’s higher quality and contains more nutrients, making it better for you all around.


The benefits of a Mediterranean diet don’t stop at the table, either. The Mediterranean diet’s emphasis on eating with the seasons provides an environmental benefit, too. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet across a population can decrease the amount of food production, packaging, and food waste. This, in turn, reduces the toll that the food industry takes on the environment and ecosystems. In this way, the biodiversity of local food in the area is celebrated and preserved, making high-quality, nutritious food accessible and affordable for all. These aspects of the Mediterranean diet made it an example of a sustainable food system and earned it a place in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

How to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your lifestyle

Working with a Mediterranean diet is more straightforward than you might think, even if it requires a major overhaul of your grocery list. When it comes to meal planning, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Moderation is key, and portion sizes are essential.
  • Keep your dairy intake low, substituting olive oil for butter or margarine whenever you can.
  • Limit your sugar intake, focusing on fresh fruits. Dried fruits such as dates and figs have many health benefits but are high in sugar.
  • Most importantly, reduce or limit red and processed meat. Choose fish, chicken, or plant-based proteins like tofu or chickpeas for most of your meals instead.

The Internet is full of recipes that adhere to the Mediterranean diet’s high but simple standards, but we’ve compiled a few tips to help you get started.


A bowl of heart-healthy oatmeal with a splash of almond milk and honey is a great example of a Mediterranean breakfast. If you prefer something heartier, try frying a couple of eggs in a little bit of polyphenol-rich olive oil and serve with some antioxidant-packed fresh fruit, plain yogurt, and whole wheat bread. Use omega-3-enriched eggs for extra nutrients.


Cut up your favorite vegetables, season them well, toss them in some olive oil and bake until caramelized or soft. Top with protein-packed hummus, a serving of quinoa, and a tablespoon or two of tzatziki, and you’ve got a delicious, hearty dish that will leave you satiated and fueled.


Dinner can be as easy as grilled fish or chicken with a side of roasted potatoes or steamed or sauteed cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli topped with a serving of your favorite cheese.


Fresh fruit is usually the way to go in the Mediterranean diet, but there’s no reason not to include chocolate! Try chocolate-dipped strawberries, or make a sorbet with your favorite berries.


If you’re feeling that midday dip in energy, grab a handful of nuts or seeds, some fruit, or a serving of cheese.

Things to keep in mind

The Mediterranean diet has a lot to offer when it comes to your health and even has a positive effect on the environment and its ecosystems. However, there are some barriers to consider when adapting the diet outside the Mediterranean region. Access to everything the Mediterranean diet entails — such as fresh produce, fish, and whole grains — may be difficult for people in food-segregated areas, those with low income, or those with allergies or intolerances.

It’s more important to eat the healthiest diet possible without sacrificing any nutrition sources. If the Mediterranean diet is an option for you, be careful when you try it, taking your current health and any conditions or medications you take into consideration. Working with a few foods abundant in a Mediterranean diet or replacing less-healthy options (such as olive oil instead of butter) is better than not taking any steps at all.⁵



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