Mediterranean Diet: Foods, Benefits & Risks
The Mediterranean diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, eggs and milk (in moderation) and olive oil.
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The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of those living near the Mediterranean Sea. It focuses on eating foods that are as natural as possible, while limiting unhealthy fats and red meat. There have been many studies to show that this type of diet, when taken on as a lifestyle, can be very beneficial.

Research has found that those living in the Mediterranean are healthier than many other cultures because of their diet. So, many have attempted to mimic the way these people eat to reap the same benefits. It is important to note that there isn’t a set Mediterranean diet plan.

Jennifer Fitzgibbon, a registered oncology dietitian at Stony Brook Hospital Cancer Center in New York, points out that there are many countries around the Mediterranean Sea and they don’t all eat the same things. She offers these points to summarize the Mediterranean diet:

  • Eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil
  • Eat poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation
  • Eat red meat only rarely
  • Avoid sugary beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils and other highly processed foods
  • Drink water as the go-to beverage; coffee and tea are also acceptable drinks
  • Drink moderate amounts of red wine, around 1 glass per day (optional)

Being physically active and enjoying meals with family and friends are also important aspects of the Mediterranean diet, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Mediterranean diet and current U.S. dietary guidelines are very similar, according to Dr. Liz Weinandy, an outpatient dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "The problem is we aren't eating this way as a nation. Most Americans are still eating large amounts of heavily processed foods that provide little nutrition to us other than calories and often, too many calories,” she told Live Science.

The Mediterranean diet is high in monounsaturated fat from olive oil, low in saturated fat, high in complex carbohydrates from legumes, and high in fiber, mostly from vegetables and fruits, according to a 2007 article in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging. The authors also said "the high content of vegetables, fresh fruits, cereals, and olive oil guarantees a high intake of beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, polyphenols, and various important minerals." Those key elements are thought to have a beneficial effect on human health and especially on cardiovascular disease.

There have been many studies on the benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet. A meta-analysis of studies, published in 2011 in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, found that subjects on the Mediterranean diet for more than six months had significant weight loss when compared to the subjects on the controlled diet. 

Research also shows that the Mediterranean diet can also help prevent heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes and premature death, as well as promote weight loss. For example, the article in Clinical Interventions in Aging found that the Mediterranean diet is effective in preventing coronary heart disease. It helps to reduce blood pressure levels and markers of vascular inflammation. Another study published in 2013 in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the diet helps reduce the incidence of major cardiovascular events. Researchers have also found that adhering to this type of diet is related to 46 percent greater odds of healthy aging, according to a report published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

There are very few risks to eating a Mediterranean diet, since it encompasses eating healthy foods in moderation. One of the few risks that some face is that they forget that exercise and the social aspects is part of what keeps the people of the Mediterranean so healthy. “Definitely the entire Mediterranean lifestyle is important. In general, that lifestyle is more active and has strong social and spiritual bonds,” said Weinandy.

Fitzgibbon agrees, "The Mediterranean 'lifestyle' and 'social aspects' also play a role.  When looked further into this involves regular physical activity, sharing meals with other people and enjoying life."

A study published in 2016 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that older women who closely follow the Mediterranean diet, or other similar diets may have a slightly lower risk of hip fractures. The researchers looked at data from 90,000 women in the long-running Women’s Health Initiative and found that the risk of hip fracture among the women who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet was very slightly reduced. The reduction in risk was small (less than 1 percent), but the finding is important because it shows that eating a healthy diet — even one that does not emphasize consuming dairy foods — is not linked with a higher risk of hip fractures, said Dr. Bernhard Haring, who led the study and is a physician at the University of Würzburg in Germany.

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