In the 1950s, studies found that adults living in the Mediterranean (Crete, part of Greece, Southern Italy, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea) were living longer than people in other parts of the world. They also found that the rates of coronary artery disease (CAD), some cancers, and other health problems due to diet were low.
Their health did not seem to be because their health services were better. Instead, their dietary patterns were found to be the cause of their good health. These patterns share features that have been linked with low rates of diseases and long lives in many studies done around the world.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
Mediterranean people eat:
Plenty of plant foods:
- Breads and cereals
- Beans, nuts, and seeds
- Olive oil used as a monounsaturated fat source
- Low-to-moderate amounts of fish and poultry
- Small amounts of red meat
- Low-to-moderate amounts of dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt)
- Low-to-moderate amounts of eggs (0 to 4 times per week)
- Low-to-moderate amounts of wine (1 to 2 glasses of wine per day), often taken with meals
How it Compares to the American Diet
Americans tend to eat:
- Animal products daily, as main source of protein
- Mostly white starches
- Moderate to low amounts of fruits and veggies
- High amounts of saturated and trans fats
Unlike the American diet, the Mediterranean diet is high in fiber and low in saturated fat. It is not low in total fat. But, the types of fats in it are healthy monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil. These fats do not raise cholesterol.
Mediterranean Diet Pyramid
The pyramid is arranged this way:
- Along the base is daily exercise and eating meals with friends and family.
- The next layer is food that should be eaten daily, such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes and seeds, and herbs and spices.
- The layer above has fish and seafood. These should be eaten more often (at least 2 times per week).
- The second layer from the top has poultry and eggs. Eat these every 2 days or once per week. Cheese and yogurt are also in this layer, which should be eaten daily to weekly.
- The final layer has meats and sweets, which should be eaten less often.
Water and wine are on the side of the pyramid. Drink plenty of water. Limit wine to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.
Eating this way may:
- Lower the rate of death in people who have had a heart attack
- Lower the rate of heart attack in people who have heart disease
- Lower the rate of stroke
- Help with weight loss
- Lower the risk of getting cancer
- Lower HbA1c levels (a test that shows how well the body uses blood sugar) in people with diabetes
- Ease pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
- Lower the risk of getting type 2 diabetes.
- Lower the risk of metabolic syndrome
- Lower the risk of cognitive impairment
Other things can also affect these benefits, such as lifestyle factors or the environment.
Tips for Mediterranean Eating
Here are some tips to help you get started eating this way:
- Eat plenty of foods from plant sources such as fruits, veggies, potatoes, whole grains, seeds, and nuts.
- Choose a variety of minimally processed foods, such as those that are seasonally and locally grown.
- Use olive oil as your main fat.
- Eat low-to-moderate daily amounts of cheese and yogurt (low-fat and non-fat versions).
- Eat fish and poultry at least twice per week.
- Have fresh fruit as your daily dessert.
- Eat red meat only a few times per month. Choose lean cuts and smaller servings. Do not eat sausage, bacon, and other meats that are high in fat.
This diet is a healthful and pleasing change from the foods most Americans eat. But other habits are just as important, such as exercising and having a strong social support system.
The American Heart Association
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation
Dietitians of Canada
Mediterranean diet. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/management/mediterranean-diet. Updated January 21, 2020. Accessed February 12, 2020.
Mediterranean diet. American Heart Association website. Available at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/mediterranean-diet. Updated January 9, 2020. Accessed February 12, 2020.
Last reviewed November 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN Last Updated: 2/3/2021