The Mediterranean Diet Is This Year's Best Overall Diet (Again)
The group's 2021 rankings appeared this morning, and once again this increasingly familiar diet topped the overall list, it also ranked first in four other categories: Best Diet for Healthy Eating, Easiest Diet To Follow, Best Diet for Diabetes, and Best Plant-Based Diets. It also took the second top slot on the Best Heart-Healthy Diets list.
"COVID has been our overriding health concern for this past year and potentially distracted us from others, but the reality is, diet is more important than ever," David Katz, M.D., preventive medicine specialist and former director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, told U.S. News. "Diet not only influences everything about our health over a lifetime, but it acutely affects the function of our immune system and exerts an outsize influence on risk factors related to COVID."
In a year when we've discussed immunity arguably more than ever before, there's been a disconcerting lack of discussion of the role that our nutrition plays in our immune health. When mindbodygreen spoke with Katz in September, he didn't hesitate to press the importance of diet in this year, especially:
"The greatest single influence of whether you develop a bad chronic disease or die prematurely is your diet quality," he said. "Diet is constantly, universally important. Literature showing that it is the single leading predictor of all-cause mortality1 is incontrovertible."
First, a quick refresher: What is the Mediterranean diet?
The root of this diet comes from a study that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. The researchers looked into the diets and overall health of seven countries and found that those in Italy and Greece had the lowest risk of heart disease, which they claimed was at least partially due to nutrition.
The Mediterranean diet is different from many of the other diets on the U.S. News list because it does not limit calories or cut out any particular food groups. Instead, it offers guidelines for eating—including its own food pyramid developed in 1993.
The diet concentrates on whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices. Seafood and poultry are the primary meats, though the latter is limited. Dairy, eggs, and a bit of red wine are all fine in moderation.
"The Mediterranean diet is beneficial for people with many different health concerns—or people who simply want a research-based, balanced plan to follow for their health," Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist Ginger Hultin, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of ChampagneNutrition, told mindbodygreen.
What is it about the Mediterranean Diet makes it such a winner?
Given its origins, it's almost not a surprise to find the Mediterranean diet topping 2021's list of Best Heart-Healthy Diets. In fact, research continues to link it to health benefits: A 2020 study found that a pesco-Mediterranean diet, paired with an intermittent fasting protocol, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, a study from the American Heart Association specifically linked olive oil—one of the diet's most iconic superfoods—to better heart health, too.
But in the 60 years since its origin, the diet has increasingly found its way onto more and more winning lists, as studies continue to uncover more benefits. For example, beyond heart health, the diet has been linked to improvements in metabolic health and gut health.
On the mindbodygreen podcast, neuroscientist and nutritionist Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., also shared: "This diet has been shown to be particularly supportive of a woman's brain and women's health overall." She attributes the brain-health benefits, at least in part, to the healthy fats from olive oil, legumes, nuts, and fish.
The Mediterranean diet and immunity.
But in 2020, there's one particular question on our mind: Does this diet support immunity? At the base level, as Katz points out, eating nutritious, whole foods is key to our overall health. But what about beyond that?
"Human studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet has some anti-inflammatory effects2," Hultin tells mindbodygreen. "Chronic inflammation in the body can impair the immune system, so there could be a potential link there."
Though the immune-supporting power of the diet may not be clinically proven, those whole foods definitely contribute to health perks. "There are also a lot of different vitamins and minerals that various systems in the body need to work optimally for a vibrant immune defense including vitamins A, C, E, and D; iron; zinc; and folic acid—to name a few," explains Hultin. "Because the Mediterranean diet is so rich in vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and foods that contain healthy fats like olives, nuts, and seeds, it can help supply many of these nutrients."
When we spoke with Katz, he advised actionable items for ensuring your nutrition is supporting your immunity—and conveniently, some of those bits of advice line up near perfectly with the Mediterranean diet:
- Eat whole foods. "Essentially the closer you get to foods that come directly from nature, the better," he says.
- Prioritize plants. "Since our diets tend to be heavy on animal foods and most people consume too few fruits and vegetables, the more you can shift to plant foods the better," says Katz. "Basically, any time you can eat a plant instead of an animal, do."
Adding Mediterranean principles to your diet couldn't be simpler.
The other key element that makes this diet so popular and so beneficial comes down to the format: It's super easy to follow since it skips strict restrictions in favor of broader guidelines (here's where that "Easiest Diet To Follow" win makes sense).
"This is a dietary pattern rather than a strict diet with certain macronutrients to hit in specific amounts, like some other diets," says Hultin. "There are some really great books out there about the Mediterranean Diet for Beginners, so use those types of resources for recipe ideas." (Check out some of these Mediterranean diet cookbooks for guidance, too.)
Finding Mediterranean-inspired cooking inspiration can start with looking to the cuisines of those "Blue Zones" of Italy and Greece (where people live longest), but you can also seek out Mediterranean-diet-approved recipes.
Beyond recipes, there are a few other key components you'll want to get familiar with. Elements of the Mediterranean diet aren't just limited to the kitchen: There's an entire lifestyle that likely plays a role, too. Get moving, connect with friends and family, and practice mindful eating to truly immerse yourself in the healthy Mediterranean lifestyle.
Another tip? Get in touch with your ingredients. For example, learn what makes a good healthy olive oil, focus on locally sourced ingredients where you can, and consider focusing on organic and natural wine if you're drinking it.
So really, all that's left to ask is this: Why wouldn't you adopt at least a bit of Mediterranean inspiration in your diet this coming year?
Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.