Scientific Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
If there’s one so-called diet that is widely acclaimed for its health benefits, it’s the Mediterranean diet. In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranked it number 1 on its 2019 41 Best Diets Overall list. It cited a “host of health benefits, including weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention.”
More of an eating pattern than a calorie-restricted diet, the Mediterranean regimen emphasizes eating lots of vegetables and fruits. It also emphasizes nuts, legumes, seeds, and fish, with liberal use of olive oil and moderate amount of dairy. An article in the June 2018 journal Current Atherosclerosis Reports also includes some red meat. It’s a way of eating common in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece.
Followers avoid processed foods high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats (think: chips, cookies, cake, white bread, white rice). But they do drink a little red wine socially during meals. It emphasizes enjoying food and drink with loved ones, staying physically active, and always keeping moderation in mind.
“I look at it as a Mediterranean lifestyle. It’s not so much what they eat, which is beneficial and anti-inflammatory; it’s in how they eat it,” says Robert E, Graham, MD, MPH, an integrative medicine physician at Physio Logic in Brooklyn, New York. “They eat it with gusto, flavor. They eat it with family.”
Helps Prevent Heart Disease and Reduce Strokes
Numerous studies suggest the Mediterranean diet is good for your ticker, noted a meta-analysis published in the November 2015 journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from a randomized clinical trial published in April 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine, known as the PREDIMED study.
For about five years, authors followed 7,000 women and men in Spain who had type 2 diabetes or a high risk for cardiovascular disease. Those who ate a calorie-unrestricted Mediterranean diet with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts had a 30 percent lower risk of heart events.
The diet may also help reduce stroke risk in women, though researchers didn’t observe the same results in men, according to a cohort study published in September 2018 in the journal Stroke. Researchers looked at a predominantly white group of 23,232 men and women ages 40 to 77 who lived in the United Kingdom. The more closely a woman followed a Mediterranean diet, the lower her risk of having a stroke. Most notably, in women who were at high risk of having a stroke, following the diet reduced their chances of stroke by 20 percent.
Helps Improve Brain Health and Weight Management
As a heart-healthy diet, the Mediterranean eating pattern may also help to reduce a decline in your memory and thinking skills with age. “The brain is a very hungry organ. To supply all of those nutrients and required oxygen, you have to have a rich blood supply. So, people who are having any problems with their vascular health — their blood vessels — are really at increased risk for developing problems with their brain, and then that frequently will present itself as cognitive decline,” says Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association.
A July 2016 review published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition looked at the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive function and concluded “there is encouraging evidence that a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improving cognition, slowing cognitive decline, or reducing the conversion to Alzheimers disease.”Additionally, a small study funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in May 2018 in the journal Neurology looked at brain scans for 70 people who had no signs of dementia at the outset, and scored them for how closely their eating patterns hewed to the Mediterranean pattern.
Those who scored low tended to have more beta-amyloid deposits (protein plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease) and lower energy use in the brain at the end of the study. At least two years later, these individuals also showed a greater increase of deposits and reduction of energy use — potentially signaling an increased risk for Alzheimer’s — than those who more closely followed the Mediterranean diet.
Likely due to its focus on whole, fresh foods, the Mediterranean diet can help with weight loss in a safe and sustainable way. Over a five-year period, eating a calorie-unrestricted Mediterranean diet high in unsaturated vegetable fat led to slightly more weight loss and added less to participants’ waist circumferences than a low-fat diet, according to an analysis of the Spanish PREDIMED trial data that was published in August 2016 in the journal The Lancet: Diabetes and Endocrinology. Particularly, people who added extra-virgin olive oil to their diets lost the most weight — 1.9 pounds on average.