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12 Scientifically Proven Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

12 Scientifically Proven Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

  • August 02, 2021
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The Mediterranean diet has exploded in popularity in recent years, and it’s not hard to imagine why: The Mediterranean diet boasts an impressively vast collection of important health benefits, from heart health to cancer prevention to exercise encouragement. 

Compared to other diets, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best—U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet as the Best Diet Overall for 2020. 

Looking past the scientifically proven health benefits, the Mediterranean diet is consistently ranked a top diet because it allows for dietary preferences, encourages food and flavor variety, and includes foods from all food groups, nixing the restrictive feelings characteristic of many diets. 

Of course, there are drawbacks to consider for every diet, but overall, the Mediterranean diet can offer long-term habit change and a lifestyle shift, both of which are key to long-lasting health. Here is a detailed look at all the health benefits of eating according to the Mediterranean diet lifestyle.

What to Expect on the Mediterranean Diet

If there’s one thing the Mediterranean diet is known for, it’s being heart-healthy. Because of this, it’s consistently rated as a top diet by U.S. News & World Report in the Best Diet Overall and Best Heart-Healthy Diet categories. 

It’s no secret why: Tons of scientific research backs the claim that the Mediterranean diet is good for your heart. 

For example, a 2016 study of more than 20,000 adults found that people who follow a Mediterranean diet are much less likely to develop heart disease, and the researchers even estimate that up to 4% of all heart disease cases could be prevented with adherence to a Mediterranean diet. 

Another study looked at the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular causes between people who followed a Mediterranean diet and people who did not. The study, which lasted nearly five years, concluded that the risks were about 30 percent lower in people who followed a Mediterranean diet. 

If you’re still not convinced that the Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy, check out this 2019 review of studies, which looked at 29 individual studies on the Mediterranean diet. The authors of the review concluded that the Mediterranean diet is protective against various forms of heart disease.

There’s some evidence that suggests following a Mediterranean diet might slow cognitive decline and prevent progressive diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. More research is needed, but the current findings are certainly promising!

For example, a 2016 review in Frontiers in Nutrition analyzed 12 studies on the Mediterranean diet and brain health, and concluded that “there is encouraging evidence that a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improving cognition, slowing cognitive decline, or reducing the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease.”

A 2015 study looked specifically at the effects of the MIND diet—a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH Diet—on the brain. Researchers found that this diet “substantially slows cognitive decline.”

You shouldn’t draw any conclusions from early research on the Mediterranean diet and diseases like Alzheimer’s but it seems that most experts agree that the Mediterranean diet, and versions of it (like the MIND diet), can improve brain health. 

If you’re looking to lose weight, consider the Mediterranean diet. Research has suggested that the Mediterranean diet can help people lose weight and keep it off. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to help people lose almost as much weight as a low-carb diet. A large study in 2018 (with more than 32,000 participants) also found that following a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk for abdominal obesity 

Slower weight loss, at the recommended timeline of one to two pounds per week, is typically more sustainable than losing a lot of weight in just a few weeks. 

In the same study where researchers estimated that a Mediterranean diet could prevent up to 6% of heart disease cases, the researchers also noted that following a Mediterranean diet could prevent up to 8.5% of stroke cases.

Additionally, a 2018 study conducted in the UK found that following a Mediterranean diet significantly reduces the risk of suffering a stroke —although the study authors do note that this finding was only true in women, not men, and that warrants further research. 

Sometimes, research findings are true in one locale but not in others, but the relationship between the Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of stroke seems to be present in many areas: A 2016 study in the European Heart Journal monitored more than 15,000 people in 39 countries over nearly four years. The closer the participants followed a Mediterranean diet, the lower their risk of heart attack, stroke or death from cardiovascular causes.

Perhaps the most promising connection between the Mediterranean diet and stroke risk is the 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that switching to—and adhering to—a Mediterranean diet could prevent up to 30 percent of heart attacks, stroke and deaths from cardiovascular disease in high-risk people.

It may seem counterintuitive that a diet plan with an emphasis on carb-heavy foods, such as pasta and ancient grains, would help manage or prevent type 2 diabetes. But there are a few key factors that make this sensible: 

A 2014 review of nine individual studies investigated the effect of the Mediterranean diet on diabetes risk, and the researchers found that adhering to a Mediterranean diet can decrease the risk for diabetes by up to 19%.  

Another study conducted in 2020 confirmed those conclusions, noting that higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet correlates with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Limited evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet can help reduce pain in people with arthritis. Many of the foods in the Mediterranean diet are anti-inflammatory, and as arthritis is an inflammatory disease, it makes sense that it could help. 

The Arthritis Foundation endorses a Mediterranean style of eating to help with the management of arthritis, citing the fact that the diet includes nutritious anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, olive oil and dark green vegetables.

Additionally, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends omega-3 fatty acids for the management of inflammatory diseases, and the Mediterranean diet contains many healthy fatty acids. 

A 2018 systematic review on the Mediterranean diet for osteoarthritis, the degenerative form of arthritis, concludes that while more long-term research is needed, it seems that the Mediterranean diet can improve symptoms of arthritis.

The Mediterranean diet is well-known and heralded for its protection against chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome. As it turns out, this antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory diet may also protect against certain cancers. 

A 2017 review of studies concluded that eating a Mediterranean diet can have a protective effect against breast cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, prostate cancer, and head and neck cancer. The authors point out that the protective effect is “mainly driven by higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

Another study conducted in 2015 looked at the effects of a Mediterranean diet versus a low-fat diet in the prevention of breast cancer in women. The results? A Mediterranean diet, especially one supplemented with extra virgin olive oil, may put up a fight against breast cancer.

Blood pressure and LDL cholesterol (often referred to simply as “bad” cholesterol) are two important markers of health and your risk of many diseases. When either marker is too high, it can indicate health problems or be a health problem on its own. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to manage and reduce your blood pressure and LDL cholesterol—the Mediterranean diet being one of them. In 2014, scientists evaluated the diets of nearly 800 firefighters to understand how their dietary habits affected certain health markers, and they found that the closer the men adhered to a Mediterranean diet, the better their cholesterol levels.

A 2018 study concluded that, in general, the Mediterranean diet can reduce blood pressure in both people with and without hypertension, although the study authors noted that more research is needed to fully understand the effects of the Mediterranean diet on blood pressure.

In 2019, however, a study in the journal Hypertension definitively concluded that eating a Mediterranean diet can lower systolic blood pressure.

Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, or something else entirely, you can find a way to thrive on the Mediterranean diet. Of course, the diet works best when you allow all of the food groups it emphasizes, but you can certainly modify it to fit your dietary preferences. 

The Mediterranean diet is not what most experts would consider restrictive, as it includes ample carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and even some treats in moderation (calling all red wine lovers!). 

“The Mediterranean diet supports consuming foods similar to people living near the Mediterranean Sea. These foods and variety support health, without a focus on restriction, but negative consequences of dieting may apply if this eating style is made into a restrictive weight loss plan.”
Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

The Mediterranean diet is one of few diets that explicitly calls for physical activity as part of the diet plan. This is a welcome addition, as most American adults don’t get enough exercise

Plus, people who exercise regularly are more likely to make healthier food choices throughout the day. What’s interesting, though, is that the relationship between exercise and the Mediterranean diet might be a two-way street: In a small study, researchers found that eating Mediterranean diet might actually improve your physical performance, as opposed to the typical Western diet. 

One big reason that the Mediterranean diet might be so conducive to long-term weight loss is that it allows for many foods and flavors, so you shouldn’t get bored or feel restricted. You can still enjoy carb-heavy foods, rich flavors, and even chocolate and wine, so the Mediterranean diet is a fantastic option if you tend to yo-yo diet because of restrictive feelings. 

Plus, hunger shouldn’t arise as an issue, even if you’re in a caloric deficit, because the Mediterranean diet emphasizes fiber-rich and protein-dense foods. These foods—such as whole grains, nuts, cheese and fish—keep you fuller longer. You’ll also be cooking with healthy fats, such as olive oil, which can add to your satiety level. 

Choosing a diet is a very personal decision and should be based on your values, beliefs, lifestyle, current health status or complications, health goals and dietary preferences.

While the Mediterranean diet does have some incredibly impressive health benefits—and a whole host of them—it might not be the right diet for everyone, and that’s OK. But it can’t hurt to try it out!

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