The Mediterranean diet is one of the most researched dietary patterns, and certainly one of the most talked about.
It was originally described in 1960 when researchers found that a dietary pattern from a specific region in the Mediterranean was associated with lower rates of chronic diseases and longer lifespans.1 This has since been backed up by a considerable amount of research, and the Mediterranean diet continues to this day to be associated with improved health and longer life.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet includes:
- An emphasis on fresh, seasonal and minimally processed plant foods including fruit, vegetables, whole grain breads and other cereals, beans, nuts and seeds
- A high intake of foods with healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, seafood and oily fish, such as salmon and sardines
- A moderate intake of dairy products
- Low to moderate intake of poultry and eggs and a low intake of red meat
- Moderate alcohol intake consumed as wine with meals.
The Mediterranean diet also includes regular physical activity and shared meals, which are important for mental and social wellbeing as well as physical health.
What are the benefits of a Mediterranean diet?
Improved heart health
In a study of 75,000 women tracked over 20 years, the Mediterranean diet was found to lower the risk of coronary heart disease by 29 per cent.1 Another review found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet closely decreased their risk of cardiovascular disease by 20–25 per cent compared to people who did not.2
The Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In long-term studies, following the Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 49 per cent in men and 69 per cent in women. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to help with achieving control of blood glucose levels in people with existing diabetes.
Adherence to the Mediterranean diet long term has been shown to reduce the risk of several cancers, including breast, colorectal, respiratory tract, gastric, bladder, liver, and head and neck cancers.1 There is also a higher chance of survival from cancer among those who follow the Mediterranean diet. This does not mean that the diet is a cure for cancer – but it can reduce the risk of cancer and improve survival with conventional treatment.
Other health benefits
There are many other known benefits to the Mediterranean diet for health and wellbeing, and many more that we are still learning about. Known benefits include reduced risk of cognitive decline including Alzheimer’s and dementia, reduced blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and increased life expectancy.1
Things to keep in mind about the Mediterranean diet
Because of the emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce and minimally processed foods, the Mediterranean diet may mean a bit of extra planning and organisation if this isn’t something you usually do. This may be challenging for people with limited cooking skills or time for prepping and cooking food from scratch.
The benefits of the diet come from a combination of factors in the overall dietary pattern rather than any one component.3 For example, adding just one thing such as a handful of nuts every day won’t reduce the risks of chronic disease to the extent described above. However, this doesn’t mean giving up on it altogether. Studies that use a score for how much someone is following the Mediterranean diet have found improvements in health outcomes for as little as two points higher in the scores,1 meaning a couple of small changes may make a positive difference, even if the full benefits aren’t achieved.
Easy ways to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your life
Getting some benefit from the Mediterranean diet doesn’t have to mean making a huge overhaul to your diet and doing all your meals from scratch with fancy recipes. Try these simple tips.
- Swap out cooking fats such as butter or margarine for olive oil.
- Choose whole foods for snacks, such as fresh fruit, yoghurt, nuts, seeds, trail mixes and vegetables.
- Choose to include fresh fruit with, or instead of, sweet desserts.
- Include fish or seafood at least twice a week, and limit red meat to a few times per month.
- Swap out white bread or pasta to a whole meal or wholegrain variety.
- Use fresh herbs or spices instead of salt in cooking.
- Add some extra veggies to your meals, such as salad ingredients on a sandwich, or as a side with dinner.
- Experiment with vegetarian options to increase your intake of plant foods.
- Stock up on canned legumes and experiment with different ways of using them. Legumes are incredibly versatile, for example swapping mince to lentils in a bolognaise or beans in tacos, or you can include chickpeas in a salad or a curry.
- Add some nuts or seeds to salads, use nuts in a stir-fry, or sprinkle them onto a breakfast cereal or muesli.
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.