Heralded as one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet is one of the most popular diets today. Learn the essentials of this diet, including its health benefits, and how to start eating Mediterranean style.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a style of eating that emphasizes minimally processed, plant-based foods. It includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains including whole-grain pasta and breads, olive oil, red wine, and small amounts of fish, eggs, dairy, and meats.
As the name implies, the Mediterranean diet is inspired by the traditional eating habits of people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, particularly the olive-growing cultures of Southern Italy, Crete, and Greece.
There is no single Mediterranean diet. The details of what characterizes Mediterranean-style eating can shift from country to country due to differences in culture, ethnic background, religion, economy, geography, and agricultural production. However, the various versions of a Mediterranean diet share common features such as:
- plentiful vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, seeds, and olive oil
- low to modest amounts of meat and dairy
- very limited processed foods or sugars.
Mediterranean diet food list
In general, the following foods are eaten frequently, moderately, and rarely as part of the Mediterranean diet:
High intake (several times a day)
- whole grains
- extra virgin olive oil
Moderate intake (several times a week)
- dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt
Low intake (several times a month)
- sweets containing added sugars or honey
- red meat.
In addition, red wine may be consumed in low to moderate amounts, usually with meals.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Numerous studies have looked at the health effects of the Mediterranean diet over the years. Studies have linked the diet to lower cardiovascular risk and several other health benefits.
In one study, over a period of 12 years, women who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet had a 25% reduced risk of four cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke, compared to women whose diet least resembled a Mediterranean diet.
Among the health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet is lower risk of the following:
- cardiovascular disease
- heart attack
- various types of cancer
- Parkinson's disease
- Alzheimer's disease
- type 2 diabetes
- rheumatoid arthritis
- nonalcoholic fatty liver.
Researchers have also studied associations between a Mediterranean diet and aging. One study of over 10,000 women ages 57 to 61 found that women who followed a Mediterranean-type eating pattern were 46% more likely to live to 70 or older without chronic disease.
The health benefits of this eating style make it a top recommendation for health experts. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the diet for the role it can play in preventing heart disease and stroke, and reducing risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. In addition, the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025 supports a healthy Mediterranean-style pattern.
Benefits of a Mediterranean lifestyle
But diet isn't the only piece of Mediterranean living that's important for health. Along with eating style, lifestyle habits that include exercise and social connections also contribute to health benefits.
One study looked at what type of impact these other lifestyle factors might have on the health of people following the Mediterranean diet. The study found that people who adhered to the Mediterranean lifestyle's tenets of adequate rest, exercise, and socializing had a lower risk of dying from cancer or from any cause.
A 7-day sample Mediterranean-style diet meal plan
How can you bring the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet into your life? To get started, mix and match from the following list of breakfast, lunch, and dinner ideas for a week's worth of Mediterranean diet-style meal inspiration.
- Greek salad made with chopped mixed greens, kalamata olives, tomatoes, fresh parsley, feta cheese, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon
- chickpea and farro salad with red peppers, spring onions, and fresh oregano, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice
- vegetarian pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, roasted broccoli, onions, green peppers, and carrots
- lentil, farro, and vegetable soup
Mediterranean couscous salad with chickpeas
tomato and tomatillo gazpacho
- tomato and cucumber salad.
- grilled vegetable kabobs with shrimp, toasted quinoa salad, and mixed green salad with pine nuts
- steamed mussels with spinach-orzo salad and minestrone soup
- salmon, whole-grain pilaf, roasted vegetables, green salad with olive oil vinaigrette
- buddha bowl with whole grain, vegetables, plant protein, and flavorful sauce
Mediterranean bowl with whole-grain sorghum, peppers, feta
farro and winter vegetables
- vegetable stir fry.