6 Reasons to Try a Mediterranean Diet

6 Reasons to Try a Mediterranean Diet

"Dieting" doesn't always mean deprivation. This eating plan is simple, nonrestrictive and benefits your whole body.

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By Taylor Lupo

The Mediterranean diet has been receiving some serious attention in recent years, and for good reason. This plan includes the fundamentals of healthy eating, like fresh produce, lean meats and whole grains. Olive oil and red wine made the cut, too!

This year, the Mediterranean diet landed itself on the top of the U.S. News and World Report's list of outstanding diets. There are loads of factors that earned this eating plan its number one rank, including simplicity and heart health benefits.

"When compared to a low-fat diet, it has a moderate impact on weight loss, but I think there are more health benefits people can reap, like lower blood pressure, and reduced risk for heart disease and diabetes," says registered dietitian, Lauren Zimmerman, RD, with Summerville Medical Center in Summerville, South Carolina.

A bounty of research agrees—there are some serious advantages to adopting a Mediterranean-style diet.

The eating plan

2 / 8 The eating plan

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. According to the USDA, foods high in saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium are best left off your plate.

Proponents of the Mediterranean diet adhere to these principles, as well. This style of eating is plant-heavy, and mainstays include plenty of produce, beans, peas, nuts and other protein-rich legumes and wholesome cooking oils, like olive and canola. Instead of sprinkling salt into your dishes, followers of this eating plan use herbs and spices.

"There are a lot of plant-based foods," Zimmerman says. “It's very low in saturated fat and pretty low in animal products, and encourages low-to-moderate intake of dairy."

Red meats should be eaten sparingly—just a few times each month—and fish should be the protein of choice once or twice each week.

Easy ways to introduce Mediterranean-style cooking into your kitchen:

  • Make plant-proteins, like lentils or quinoa, the star of your dish
  • Sauté your veggies in olive oil, rather than butter
  • Scale back your dairy consumption, and opt for low-fat milk or yogurt
  • Swap your steak dinner with a freshly-grilled filet of salmon, tuna or mackerel
It's super simple

3 / 8 It's super simple

According to U.S. News and World Report, of all 40 diets on the 2018 list, the Mediterranean diet was the easiest to follow.

The Mediterranean style of eating is relatively straightforward—fill your plate with the nutrients your body needs, and there will be no room left for unhealthy junk. This simplicity, coupled with the plan's flexibility, make the Mediterranean diet easy to stick to.

"I think it's an easy diet to follow because I don't see it as too restrictive," Zimmerman says. "As long as people can find ways to incorporate a lot of plant foods, like fruits, vegetables and beans, into their diet, they can eat plentifully without really restricting anything."

It helps control diabetes

4 / 8 It helps control diabetes

Obesity, which is linked to an unhealthy diet, can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which the body doesn't produce enough insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating blood glucose or blood sugar, or doesn't respond to it well. This leads to high blood sugar, and when levels are too high, your heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves can suffer.

In most cases, diabetes can be managed with a healthy diet, regular exercise, blood sugar monitoring, medication, insulin or a combination of these interventions. Certain eating plans are more effective for diabetes control, and the Mediterranean diet is one of them.

A 2015 systemic review of 13 meta-analyses and randomized control trials of people with or at risk of diabetes suggests, when compared to low fat diets, a Mediterranean diet can better stabilize glucose levels.

Adopting a Mediterranean diet can begin with small changes, like swapping your afternoon bag of chips with crunchy celery sticks and a tablespoon of hummus.

It's linked to lower cancer risk

5 / 8 It's linked to lower cancer risk

A healthful diet may help ward off some cancers. Research from 2017 suggests a Mediterranean-inspired diet is linked to a reduced risk of estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Results from a study of 62,573 Dutch women between the ages of 55 and 69 suggest those who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet were 40 percent less likely to develop this form of breast cancer, when compared to those who didn't follow the diet.

The reason this style of eating is effective in minimizing the risk of breast cancer is somewhat unclear, though experts have a theory. Overtime, inflammation can increase your cancer risk, but certain foods may help counteract the damage. A typical Mediterranean diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods like olive oil, fruits, vegetables, fatty fish and nuts.

It reduces cognitive decline

6 / 8 It reduces cognitive decline

Your brain changes as you age and, in older adults, these changes can include shrinking. A decrease in the brain's size may cause a drop in cognitive function.

The Mediterranean diet may give a whole new meaning to the phrase "brain food." A 2017 Scottish study published in the journal Neurology suggests a link between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and brain volume. The study ran for three years and included 400 adults between the ages of 73 and 76, all without dementia. Those who stuck with the diet most closely experienced less brain shrinkage than those who didn't cling as closely.

A second study of 5,907 older adults published later that year suggests a connection between a Mediterranean or MIND-style diet and better cognitive skills, like memory and attention.

To boost your brain health, try swapping your standard lunch sandwich with a spinach salad, topped with chopped walnuts, fresh berries and a serving of grilled chicken.

It boosts heart health

7 / 8 It boosts heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American men and women, claiming 610,000 lives each year. A number of factors, like your weight, age, blood pressure, activity levels and family history, contribute to your risk of this heart condition, but your diet plays a part, too.

While unhealthy eating habits can hurt your heart, following a Mediterranean diet can help protect your ticker. A 2013 study of 7,447 people between the ages of 55 and 80, and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, links a Mediterranean diet to a reduction in cardiovascular events, like stroke and heart attack, among people with a high risk of heart disease. Participants who ate a Mediterranean-style diet also either supplemented the plan with olive oil or mixed nuts.

Zimmerman suggests a diet that limits processed junk and focuses on whole foods can help lower blood pressure levels. "You're not consuming as much sodium and you're eating a lot more potassium, which can really help counteract the effects of sodium on the blood pressure," she says.

Potassium-rich foods include bananas, avocados, Brussels sprouts, spinach and sweet potatoes.

It protects older adults from frailty

8 / 8 It protects older adults from frailty

Frailty is a condition common in older people and is comprised of a number of conditions, including unintentional weight loss, low energy and muscle weakness. Frail adults are also at an increased risk for bone fractures, falls, dementia and a low quality of life.

Frailty is a broad term, and there is no single definition, set of symptoms or list of risk factors for the condition. Despite this, there are some proven ways to slow the degree of physical and mental decline in older adults. A 2018 analysis of 5,789 people in four studies suggests older adults who follow a Mediterranean diet are less likely to become frail.

Results from one of the studies included in the analysis suggest Mediterranean-style eaters can reduce their risk of frailty. The study followed 560 non-frail adults for two years. At the end of the study, 79 adults had become frail, defined as having three or more of the following criteria: involuntary weight loss, exhaustion, slowness, weakness and low physical activity.

Those who adhered closely to the Mediterranean diet has a lower risk of becoming frail by 68 percent, when compared to those who followed is the least. They also saw a reduction in risk for slowness, low activity and poor muscle strength.