Diet trends come and go, but the Mediterranean Diet has staying power. Why does it consistently rank among the top-recommended diets?
The Mediterranean Diet was developed in the 1980s, after observational studies showed that countries along the European coast of the Mediterranean Sea reported less incidence of heart disease. The diet has since been touted as one of the best diets for reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke, as well as for losing weight.
Recently, researchers began taking claims about the Mediterranean Diet one step further, reporting that seniors whose eating habits most closely follow the diet are living longer.
Year after year, it ranks as one of the top diets recommended by physicians.
In January 2020, US News and World Report ranked the Mediterranean Diet as the Best Overall Diet for the third year in a row. It also took the top spot on four other diet rankings: Best Diets for Healthy Eating, Best Diets for Diabetes, Best Plant-Based Diets, and Easiest Diets to Follow.
Being easy to follow is probably what gives the Mediterranean Diet its longevity as a diet, and why it gives us longevity. It makes sense that when a diet is easy to follow, we are more likely to stay on it, and, therefore, more likely to reap the health benefits.
The reason why it is so easy to follow is that, unlike calorie-restrictive diets or low carbohydrate diets, the Mediterranean Diet is really more than a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Following the diet is merely following the eating habits of people who eat healthfully all the time.
And unlike diets such as paleo, keto, Atkins, Zone, and Whole30, that focus on eliminating or restricting certain foods or food groups to achieve weight loss, the Mediterranean Diet isn’t focused on just losing weight. Rather, the main goal is promoting heart-healthy foods. It is focused on what you can or should eat, rather than what you can’t eat.
The American Heart Association promotes the Mediterranean Diet as a way to meet its Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations for reducing the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and obesity. These recommendations include eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, limiting sugar and saturated fats, eating lean protein sources such as poultry and fish, and choosing whole grains and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
While cultural traditions among Mediterranean countries vary, there are commonalities that make up the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. People living in Spain, Italy, Greece, Monaco, Croatia, and other Mediterranean countries tend to have these habits in common:
- All tend to consume high amounts of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. A diet that centers on plant-foods is naturally less calorie-dense and high in fiber, which helps with weight reduction.
- They use olive oil as opposed to other dietary oils or butter. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat and is high in antioxidants that fight inflammation, making it one of the healthiest oil choices.
- They eat less meat and dairy than other countries and prefer fish and poultry over red meat, which means they are consuming less fat and cholesterol.
- They don’t consume many processed foods, which are high in fat, sodium, and sugar.
- They drink red wine in moderation.
Nutrition experts agree that the Mediterranean Diet is successful primarily because of the emphasis on fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and eating fish, meat, and dairy in smaller amounts. As previously stated, foods that come from plants are less calorie dense than animal foods. This means you can eat more and consume fewer calories. The fiber in plant-based foods keeps you full longer. Shifting your diet to include more fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains will help you lose weight without depriving yourself of good food.
A diet that focuses on plant-based foods is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, which improve the health of the digestive tract and the brain in addition to your heart. Recent research shows a connection between gut microbes and the part of the brain that controls anxiety and depression. Called the gut-brain axis, it indicates that a healthy gut environment can improve your mental health.
Additionally, studies on Alzheimer’s and dementia show that healthy eating can greatly reduce your risk of these diseases.
Try the Mediterranean Diet with this sample menu:
Greek yogurt mixed with oats, strawberries, blueberries, and chopped nuts
Banana with peanut butter
Chicken sandwich on whole-grain bread with roasted zucchini, peppers, and onion. Sliced apple.
Carrot sticks and hummus
Baked fish, rice pilaf, and steamed broccoli and cauliflower