If you've been keeping up at all with health-related news in the past decade, you've likely heard some pretty reputable experts recommend the Mediterranean diet.
In fact, for the fifth year in a row, the U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking revealed that the Mediterranean diet continues to be named the best overall diet, concluding that it may offer a host of health benefits, including weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control.
But how exactly do you follow a Mediterranean diet, and what makes it so adored by nutrition experts?
Here, learn the basics of this tried-and-true diet, the numerous health benefits associated with it, and how to get started today.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet as we know it today is based broadly on the diet of the countries lining the Mediterranean Sea.
It became a phenomenon around the world when, in the 1950s and '60s, Ancel Keys and his colleagues studied the diets and overall health of seven countries (United States, the Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, and Japan) in relation to coronary heart disease risk.
They found that people in Italy and Greece had the lowest risk of developing coronary heart disease, partially due to their diet.
Instead, it focuses more on a healthy pattern of eating real, whole foods within every food group—possibly making you less likely to feel restricted and more likely to stick to it.
A typical, balanced Mediterranean diet includes antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices.
It also promotes regular consumption of omega-3-rich fish and seafood and weekly consumption of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
"It's usually the diet I recommend for my diabetic, heart disease, and autoimmune patients who do not have any food allergies or intolerances," Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician, told mbg.
The Mediterranean diet is also more than just a diet—it emphasizes physical activity and social relationships. So exercising (even just walking) and dining with friends regularly is also encouraged.
5 biggest health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet has long been praised for its wide-ranging health benefits, from improved heart health to a reduced risk of cancer. It's also one of the most studied diets.
Here are some of the most exciting science-backed benefits of the Mediterranean diet to date:
It promotes heart health and increased life span.
The Mediterranean diet is widely promoted due to its positive impact on heart health.
The landmark 2013 PREDIMED study, which followed over 7,000 people, found that people eating a Mediterranean style diet rich in olive oil and nuts had significantly lower risk of experiencing a major cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke. These people also had fewer cardiovascular disease risk factors such as central obesity.
Healthy fats—like those found in nuts, olive oil, and fatty fish—are likely a key element of the Mediterranean diet's heart-health benefits.
High levels of fiber and antioxidants from a variety of vegetables, fruits, and red wine have cardioprotective effects as well.
Largely due to these improvements in heart health, the Mediterranean is also associated with an increased life span.
It promotes healthy weight and metabolism.
The Mediterranean diet's focus on real, whole foods—particularly those that are high in fiber—makes it a great choice for anyone looking to improve their overall metabolic health.
"A high-fiber diet improves diabetes and glucose intolerance, keeps you full, and makes you less likely to gain weight," says Gandhi.
In fact, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet; and it's been linked to a reduction in risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
It's been shown to reduce cancer risk.
The Mediterranean diet contains naturally high levels of antioxidants from a variety of colorful plant foods.
Antioxidants are compounds that help stop or slow oxidative damage and reduce inflammation throughout the body—which is why they're often associated with a reduced risk of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
In fact, studies show that the Mediterranean diet has a protective effect against various types of cancers.
In one research review (encompassing 83 studies and over two million people), the Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and gastric cancer. Researchers credited the diet's higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
It's good for your memory and mood.
For many of the same reasons that the Mediterranean diet is great for cancer prevention (i.e., its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties), it's also great for brain health.
Higher dietary intake of carotenoid antioxidants, found in a number of fruits and vegetables eaten on a Mediterranean diet (carrots, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, apricots, melons, etc.), has specifically been linked to improved mood and optimism.
It's good for your gut.
The high intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables means this diet is also high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which can benefit gut health by feeding the beneficial probiotic bacteria that live there, as well as reducing inflammation.
In one study, primates that were fed a plant-heavy Mediterranean diet had a significantly higher population of good gut bacteria than those eating a typical meat-focused Western diet.
Gut health is also closely tied to mental health, which may be another reason a Mediterranean diet is associated with better mood.
What to eat on a Mediterranean diet
The main idea of the Mediterranean diet is to eat real, whole foods and to largely avoid processed foods.
In general, you want to try to base your meals around fruits and vegetables (aim for about nine servings a day), whole grains, beans, nuts, and legumes.
Add in some healthy fats such as omega-3-rich fish and olive oil. And, if you're in the mood for meat, stick to lean meats such as chicken and turkey.
Here's a breakdown of what to eat on the Mediterranean diet:
- Vegetables: spinach, arugula, broccoli rabe, kale, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, onions, garlic, cucumber, cauliflower, bell peppers, artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, squash, mushrooms, celery, fennel, cabbage, leeks, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, etc.
- Fruits: grapes, lemons, oranges, berries, figs, melons, peaches, plums, apples, pears, grapefruit, pomegranate, apricots, avocados, olives, etc.
- Nuts & seeds: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.
- Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas, peanuts, etc.
- Grains: quinoa, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, farro, millet, oats, polenta, rice, wheat berries, whole grain breads, pasta (preferably whole grain), etc.
- Dairy: yogurt, cottage cheese, feta cheese, Parmesan cheese, ricotta cheese, mozzarella, etc.
- Eggs: chicken eggs, duck eggs, quail eggs, etc.
- Seafood: sardines, anchovies, salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, halibut, sea bass, shrimp, oysters, mussels, clams, crab, etc.
- Meats: chicken, turkey, duck, etc. (limit red meat to a few times per month)
- Flavorings & condiments: olive oil, avocado oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, honey, salt, pepper, cayenne, turmeric, ginger, oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin, dill, parsley, paprika, bay leaves, basil, sage, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc.
- Beverages: water, tea, coffee, and red wine (in moderation: 1 glass per day for women, 2 glasses for men)
- Foods to avoid or limit: highly processed foods, including foods and beverages containing excess added sugars, refined grains, trans fats, and refined vegetable oils (soybean oil, corn oil, etc.)
7-Day Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan
Remember, the Mediterranean diet is not a diet of exclusion, it's a general eating pattern focusing on nutrient-rich whole foods.
Here are some meal ideas to get you started, but feel free to mix and match with the foods above:
Breakfast: plain yogurt with blueberries, walnuts, and a drizzle of honey
Snack: pita, carrot slices, and hummus
Lunch: Greek salad (greens, olives, tomatoes, feta, oil, and vinegar) with chicken
Dinner: grilled artichoke hearts with olive oil, lemon, tomatoes, and olives
Breakfast: omelet with mushrooms, peppers, and onions
Snack: two figs stuffed with almond butter
Lunch: lentil soup and a piece of fruit
Dinner: grilled salmon with tzatziki, bulgur, and broccoli rabe
Breakfast: whole wheat toast with soft cheese and fresh squeezed juice
Snack: crunchy roasted chickpeas and a piece of fruit
Lunch: mixed greens salad with sardines, tomatoes, cucumber, chickpeas, and vinaigrette
Dinner: flatbread pizza with grilled vegetables and mozzarella
Breakfast: granola with slivered almonds, strawberries, and milk of your choice
Snack: babaganoush with veggie slices
Lunch: quinoa salad with olives, tomatoes, feta, and herbs
Dinner: zucchini noodles with pesto, sun dried tomatoes, and grilled chicken
Breakfast: smoked salmon, greens, and poached eggs on whole grain toast
Snack: small handful of pistachios
Lunch: tuna salad (made with olive oil) on a bed of arugula
Dinner: couscous and lentil salad with roasted cauliflower, pistachios, and mint
Breakfast: mushroom and broccoli egg muffins
Snack: melon slices wrapped in prosciutto
Lunch: butternut squash salad with arugula, pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds, goat cheese
Dinner: whole wheat pasta with grilled vegetables and salmon
Breakfast: cottage cheese with peach slices
Snack: small bowl of olives
Lunch: whole grain bread sandwich with hummus, mozzarella, tomato slices, and basil
Dinner: shrimp and broccoli stir fry
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).