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The Mediterranean Diet

Myths, Facts, and Health Benefits of Eating the Mediterranean Way

Mediterranean dish

When you think about Mediterranean food, your mind probably goes to pizza and pasta from Italy, or hummus and pita from Greece, but these dishes don’t exactly fit into any healthy dietary plans advertised as “Mediterranean.” The reality is that a true Mediterranean diet consists mainly of fruits and vegetables, seafood, olive oil, hearty grains, and other foods that help fight against heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and cognitive decline. It’s a diet worth chasing; making the switch from pepperoni and pasta to fish and avocados may take some effort, but you could soon be on a path to a healthier and longer life.

What is a “Mediterranean diet”?

Pizza, gyros, falafel, lasagna, rack of lamb, and long loaves of white bread: all these foods have become synonymous with what we call “Mediterranean.” We picture huge, three-hour feasts with multiple courses and endless bottles of wine. But over the past 50 years, Americans and others have altered the idea of Mediterranean fare, ramping up the calories and unhealthy fat at the expense of the region’s traditional fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, olive oil, dairy, and a glass or two of red wine. What was once a healthy and inexpensive way of eating back then is now associated with heavy, unhealthy dishes that contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, and other health problems.

After World War II, a study led by Ancel Keys of the Mayo Foundation examined the diets and health of almost 13,000 middle-aged men in the US, Japan, Italy, Greece (including Crete), the Netherlands, Finland, and Yugoslavia. Remarkably, well-fed American men had higher rates of heart disease than those in countries whose diets had been restricted by the deprivations of war. It was the men of Crete, arguably the poorer people of the study, who enjoyed the best cardiovascular health. This was due to physical labor and their unique food pyramid.

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is based on the dietary traditions of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy circa 1960 at a time when the rates of chronic disease among populations there were among the lowest in the world, and adult life expectancy was among the highest, even though medical services were limited.

Aside from eating a diet consisting mainly of fresh and homegrown foods instead of processed goods, other vital elements to the Mediterranean diet are daily exercise, sharing meals with others, and fostering a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.

Health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

A traditional Mediterranean diet consisting of large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil—coupled with physical activity—reduces the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. More specifically:

Protecting against type 2 diabetes. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, slowing down digestion and preventing huge swings in blood sugar.

Preventing heart disease and strokes. Refined breads, processed foods, and red meat are discouraged in a Mediterranean diet, and it encourages drinking red wine instead of hard liquor, which have all been linked to heart disease and stroke prevention.

Keeping you agile. The nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce a senior’s risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about 70 percent.

Reducing risk of Alzheimer’s. Researchers speculate that the Mediterranean diet may improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and overall blood vessel health—all factors that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Halving the risk of Parkinson’s disease. In a diet containing high levels of antioxidants that prevent cells from undergoing a damaging process called oxidative stress, the risk of Parkinson’s disease is practically cut in half.

Increased longevity. When there is a reduction in developing heart disease or cancer, as in the case when you follow a Mediterranean diet, there is a 20% reduced risk of death at any age.

Myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet

Following a Mediterranean diet has many benefits, but there are still a lot of misconceptions on exactly how to take advantage of the lifestyle to lead a healthier, longer life. The following are some myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet.

Myths and facts of a Mediterranean diet

Myth 1: It costs a lot to eat this way.

Fact: If you're creating meals out of beans or lentils as your main source of protein, and sticking with mostly plants and whole grains, then the Mediterranean diet is less expensive than serving dishes of packaged or processed foods.

Myth 2: If one glass of wine is good for your heart, then three glasses is three times as healthy.

Fact: Moderate amounts of red wine (one drink a day for women; two for men) certainly has unique health benefits for your heart, but drinking too much has the opposite effect. Anything more than two glasses of wine can actually be bad for your heart.

Myth 3: Eating large bowls of pasta and bread is the Mediterranean way.

Fact: Typically, Mediterraneans don't eat a heaping plate of pasta the way Americans do. Instead, pasta is usually a side dish with about a 1/2-cup to 1-cup serving size. The rest of their plate consists of salads, vegetables, fish or a small portion of organic, grass-fed meat, and perhaps one slice of bread.

Myth 4: The Mediterranean diet is only about the food.

Fact: The food is a huge part of the diet, yes, but don't overlook the other ways the Mediterraneans live their lives. When they sit down for a meal, they don't sit in front of a television or eat in a rush; they sit down for a relaxed, leisurely meal with others, which may be just as important for your health as what's on your plate.

Myth 5: All vegetable oils are the same, and equally good for you.

Fact: Things aren’t that simple. There are basically two types of unsaturated vegetable oils: Firstly, traditional, cold-pressed oils such as extra virgin olive oil and peanut oil that are rich in monounsaturated fats and have long been used in the Mediterranean diet. Cold-pressed oils are made without the use of chemicals or heat to extract the oil.

Secondly, there are modern processed oils such as soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil and vegetable oil. These oils are industrially manufactured—usually from genetically modified crops in the U.S.—using high heat and toxic solvents to extract the oil from the seeds.

Some nutritionists feel that this industrial processing can damage the oil and transform the fatty acids into dangerous trans fat. Their high omega-6 content can also unbalance the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s that are crucial to good health.

How to make the change

If you’re feeling daunted by the thought of changing your eating habits to a Mediterranean diet, here are some suggestions to get you started:

Eat lots of vegetables. Try a simple plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese, or load your thin crust pizza with peppers and mushrooms instead of sausage and pepperoni. Salads, soups, and crudité platters are also great ways to load up on vegetables.

Change the way you think about meat. If you eat red meat, have smaller amounts and opt for “organic, grass-fed” whenever possible to avoid the antibiotics, hormones and GMO feed associated with industrially raised meat. Put small strips of organic, free-range chicken on your salad, or add small amounts of meat to a whole-wheat pasta dish.

Always eat breakfast. Fruits, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods are a great way to start your day, keeping you pleasantly full for hours.

Eat seafood twice a week. Fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, sablefish (black cod), and sardines are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.

Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. If it’s helpful, you can jump on the “Meatless Mondays” trend of foregoing meat on the first day of the week, or simply pick a day where you build meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Once you get the hang of it, try two nights a week.

Use good fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados are great sources of healthy fats for your daily meals.

Enjoy dairy products such as natural cheese, Greek or plain yogurt. Research shows that eating whole-milk dairy products is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity. This may be because full-fat dairy makes you feel fuller, faster, and keeps you feeling satisfied for longer, thus helping you to eat less overall. Choose organic or raw milk products if possible.

For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Instead of ice cream, cake or other baked goods, opt for strawberries, fresh figs, grapes, or apples.

What to do about mercury in fish

Despite all the health benefits of seafood, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of pollutants, including the toxic metal mercury. These guidelines can help you make the safest choices.

  • The concentration of mercury and other pollutants increases in larger fish, so it’s best to avoid eating large fish like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel.
  • Most adults can safely eat about 12 ounces (two 6-ounce servings) of other types of cooked seafood a week.
  • Pay attention to local seafood advisories to learn if fish you’ve caught is safe to eat.
  • For women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and children aged 12 and younger, choose fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, or catfish. Because of its higher mercury content, eat no more than 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

Quick start to a Mediterranean diet

The easiest way to make the change to a Mediterranean diet is to start with small steps. You can do this by:

  • Sautéing food in olive oil instead of vegetable oil.
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables by enjoying salad as a starter or side dish, snacking on fruit, and adding veggies to other dishes.
  • Choosing whole grains instead of refined breads, rice, and pasta.
  • Substituting fish for red meat twice per week.
  • Enjoying dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt.
Instead of this: Try this Mediterranean option:

Chips, pretzels, crackers and ranch dip

Carrots, celery, broccoli and salsa

Chips, pretzels, crackers and ranch dip

Carrots, celery, broccoli and salsa

White rice with stir-fried meat

Quinoa with stir-fried vegetables

Sandwiches with white bread or rolls

Sandwich fillings in whole-wheat tortillas

Ice cream

Pudding made with whole or skim milk

Adapted with permission from Harvard Health Letter: July 2013, a newsletter published by Harvard Health Publications.

Related HelpGuide Articles

Resources and references

Health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Study Supports Heart Benefits from Mediterranean-Style Diets – A study starting in 2003 shows the healthy results from eating a Mediterranean diet. (Harvard Health Publications)

Antioxidants: Vitamin C and E, Mediterranean Diet – A breakdown on the benefits of a diet rich with Vitamin C and E, and monounsaturated fats. (National Parkinson Foundation)

Mediterranean Diet: A heart-healthy eating plan – Learning about a heart-healthy eating plan based on typical foods and recipes of Mediterranean-style cooking. (Mayo Clinic)

The Mediterranean Diet’s Brain Benefits – Describes a study linking the Mediterranean diet and a healthy brain. (The New York Times)

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 Fats: An Essential Contribution – All about the health benefits of the important omega-3 fatty acids, including the best food sources in which to find them. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Simple charts listing omega-3 fatty acid content of selected foods. (Tufts University School of Medicine)

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Comprehensive article on omega-3 fatty acids and the role they may play in preventing several diseases and conditions. (University of Maryland Medical Center)

Mediterranean recipes

22 Mediterranean Diet Recipes to Improve Your Health – Ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. (Health.com)

Healthy Mediterranean – Learn the basics of this European regional diet. (Food Network)

Heart-Healthy Mediterranean Diet Recipes – Over 35 tasty and creative Mediterranean recipes. (Whole Living)

Authors: Greg Boose and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated: October 2016.