The Mediterranean Diet: Facts and Health Benefits

The Mediterranean diet is a modern nutritional recommendation originally inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of Greece, Southern Italy, Portugal, and Spain. The principal aspects of this diet include proportionally high consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), moderate wine consumption, and low consumption of meat and meat products.

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The heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet is a healthy eating plan based on typical foods and recipes of Mediterranean-style cooking. The Mediterranean diet incorporates the basics of healthy eating among other components characterizing the traditional cooking style of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

General Principles of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is not about quick fix “superfoods”. Nor is it a strict list of what you should not eat. Rather, the Mediterranean Diet is a formula for healthy day-to-day eating over the long term.

Here’s a quick guide for those who would like to try it:

  • Maximise your intake of vegetables, peas and beans (legumes), fruits and wholegrain cereals.
  • Limit your red meat intake – fish and poultry are healthy substitutes.
  • Where possible, use mono-unsaturated olive oil or rapeseed oil in place of animal fat such as butter or lard.
  • Limit your intake of highly processed ‘fast foods’ and ‘ready meals’, where you cannot tell saturated fat and salt intake.
  • Eat no more than moderate amounts of dairy products, and preferably low-fat ones.
  • Do not add salt to your food at the table – there is already plenty there.
  • Snack on fruit, dried fruit and unsalted nuts rather than cakes, crisps and biscuits.
  • Drink red wine during meals, but no more than three small glasses per day if you are a man and no more than two small glasses per day if you are a woman.
  • Water is the best ‘non-alcoholic beverage’ (as opposed to sugary drinks), although health benefits have also been claimed for various teas and coffee.

The Mediterranean Diet includes: 

  • Lots of plant foods.
  • Fresh fruit as dessert.
  • High consumption of beans, nuts, cereals (in the form of wheat, oats, barley, corn or brown rice) and seeds.
  • Olive oil as the main source of dietary fat.
  • Cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods.
  • Moderate amounts of fish and poultry.
  • No more than about four eggs each week.
  • Small amounts of red meat each week (compared to northern Europe).
  • Low to moderate amounts of wine.
  • 25% to 35% of calorie intake consists of fat.
  • Saturated fat makes up no more than 8% of calorie intake.
Accepted Dietary Guideline 

Carbohydrates: At 50 percent of daily calories, you’ll align with the recommended range.

Fat: You’ll stay within the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat.

Protein: It’s within the 10 to 35 percent of daily calories the government recommends.

Fiber: Getting the recommended daily amount of 22 to 34 grams for adults helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. You shouldn’t have any trouble meeting your goal.

Salt: The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older, African-American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, that limit is 1,500 mg. The sample menu provided by Oldways is under both caps, but it’ll be up to you to choose low-sodium foods and stop reaching for the saltshaker.

Calcium: It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. The sample menu didn’t provide enough, but eating more yogurt, tofu and fortified cereals and juice should do the trick.

Potassium: A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. The sample Mediterranean menu fell just short of the recommendation, but because you’re almost certainly eating more fruits and veggies than you were before, you’ll likely get more potassium than most.

Vitamin D: Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. Low-fat dairy and fortified cereals will help you meet the requirement.

Vitamin B12: Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Working in yogurt and fortified foods, like cereals, can bring you closer to that goal.

Foods to Eat
  • Vegetables: Tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, etc.
  • Fruits: Apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches, etc.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, Macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and more.
  • Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, pulses, peanuts, chickpeas, etc.
  • Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, yams, etc.
  • Whole Grains: Whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, whole grain bread and pasta.
  • Fish and Seafood: Salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, crab, mussels, etc.
  • Poultry: Chicken, duck, turkey and more.
  • Eggs: Chicken, quail and duck eggs.
  • Dairy: Cheese, yogurt, Greek yogurt, etc.
  • Herbs and Spices: Garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, etc.
  • Healthy Fats: Extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados and avocado oil.

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the Mediterranean diet as an eating plan that can help promote health and prevent disease. And the Mediterranean diet is one your whole family can follow for good health. The Mediterranean diet often is cited as beneficial for being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fiber. One of the main explanations is thought to be the health effects of olive oil included in the Mediterranean diet. A 2011 systematic review found that a Mediterranean diet appeared to be more effective than a low-fat diet in bringing about long-term changes to cardiovascular risk factors, such as lowering cholesterol level and blood pressure.

More than half the fat calories in a Mediterranean diet come from monounsaturated fats (mainly from olive oil). Monounsaturated fat doesn’t raise blood cholesterol levels the way saturated fat does.

The incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean countries is lower than in the United States. Death rates are lower, too. But this may not be entirely due to the diet. Lifestyle factors (such as more physical activity and extended social support systems) may also play a part.


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