EBSCO Health

Print PageSend to a Friend
Health Library Home>Wellness Centers>Food & Nutrition>Article

The Mediterranean Diet and Good Health

mediterranean foods In the 1950s, researchers found that the adult life expectancy for people living in the Mediterranean regions (Crete, part of Greece, Southern Italy, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea) were among the highest in the world. They also found that rates of coronary artery disease (CAD), certain cancers, and some other diet-related chronic diseases in this region were among the lowest in the world.

The health of the Mediterranean people did not appear to be due to existing medical services, which were limited at that time. However, the researchers found that the Mediterranean people had something in common that might be contributing to their good health—their dietary patterns. These dietary patterns share characteristics that have been associated with low rates of chronic diseases and long life expectancies in many studies conducted throughout the world.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

There is no 1 typical Mediterranean diet. Many countries border the Mediterranean Sea and variations in the Mediterranean diet exist between these countries. However, according to the American Heart Association, traditional Mediterranean diets have the following characteristics in common:

Comparison With the American Diet

The American diet is characterized by:

  • Animal products daily, as main source of protein
  • White starches, predominantly
  • Moderate to low in fruits and vegetables
  • High in saturated and trans fats

Unlike the typical American diet, the traditional Mediterranean diet is high in fiber and low in saturated fat. However, the Mediterranean diet is not necessarily low in total fat. But, the types of fats emphasized in the Mediterranean diet are "healthy" monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, which do not raise cholesterol levels.

Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

The traditional Mediterranean diet has been illustrated in a Mediterranean diet pyramid developed by researchers at Harvard University and Oldways, a nonprofit education organization that promotes alternatives to unhealthy eating styles of industrialized countries. The pyramid is arranged in the following way:

  • Along the base is daily physical activity, as well as a reminder to eat meals with friends and family.
  • The next layer is food that should be eaten daily. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes and seeds, and herbs and spices.
  • The layer above that features fish and seafood. Eat these more often (at least 2 times per week).
  • The second layer from the top includes poultry and eggs. Eat these every 2 days or once per week. Cheese and yogurt is also in this layer, which should be eaten daily to weekly.
  • The final layer has meats and sweets, which should be eaten less often.

Alongside the pyramid, water and wine are featured. Stay hydrated throughout the day with water, and drink wine in moderation (2 drinks per day for men, and 1 drink per day for women).

Health Benefits

There has been a lot of research on the potential health benefits of following the Mediterranean diet. According to studies, this diet may offer these benefits:

It is important to remember, though, that other factors can affect these benefits. For example, people who follow the Mediterranean diet may have a lower risk of cancer because of other lifestyle factors or their environment.

Tips for Mediterranean Eating

How can you eat more authentically Mediterranean? Here are some tips from the Oldways website:

Lifestyle Changes

Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet is a healthful and pleasing alternative to the American diet. However, will the diet alone significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and increase your longevity? Researchers point out that the low incidence of heart disease and low death rate in the Mediterranean countries may be due, in part, to other lifestyle factors, such as more physical activity and extended social support systems.


The American Heart Association



Canadian Digestive Health Foundation

Dietitians of Canada


Albert CM, Oh K, et al. Dietary alpha-linolenic acid intake and risk of sudden cardiac death and coronary heart disease. Circulation. 2005;112:3232-3238.

de Lorgeril M, Salen P. The Mediterranean-style diet for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. Public Health Nutr. 2006;9(1A):118-123.

de Lorgeril M, Salen P, Martin JL, Monjaud I, Delaye J, Mamelle N. Mediterranean diet, traditional risk factors, and rate of cardiovascular complications after myocardial infarction. Circulation. 1999;99:779-785.

de Lorgeril M, Salen P. The Mediterranean diet in secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. Clin Invest Med. 2006;29:154-158.

Depression. World Health Organization website. Available at http://www.who.int/mental_health/mhgap/evidence/depression/en. Accessed March 10, 2018.

Mediterranean diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 17, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2018.

McManus K, Antinoro L, Sacks F. A randomized controlled trial of a moderate-fat, low-energy diet compared with a low-fat, low-energy diet for weight loss in overweight adults. Int J of Obesity. 2001;25:1503-1511.

Mediterranean diet. American Heart Association website. Available at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Mediterranean-Diet_UCM_306004_Article.jsp. Updated August 11, 2014. Accessed March 31, 2016.

Mediterranean diet pyramid. Oldways website. Available at http://oldwayspt.org/resources/heritage-pyramids/mediterranean-pyramid/overview. Accessed March 31, 2016.

8/27/2013 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Corella D, Carrasco P, Sorli J, et al. Mediterranean diet reduces the adverse effect of the TCF7L2-rs7903146 polymortphism on cardiovascular risk factors and stroke incidence. Diabetes Care. 2013 Aug 13. [Epub ahead of print].

1/30/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis. Ann Neurol. 2013 Oct;74(4):580-91.

Last reviewed March 2018 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 5/12/2018