Mediterranean Diet: What You Need to Know

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Heart disease, obesity and diabetes have become prevalent in America and around the globe, and the Mediterranean Diet could help people everywhere change their health profiles, not to mention their silhouettes.

But what are the main features of a Mediterranean-style diet?

  • Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole-grain breads and legumes (such as lentils, beans, peas and soy)
  • Using olive oil or canola oil instead of butter
  • Eating fish or poultry at least twice a week
  • Cutting back on red meat to no more than once a week
  • Cutting way back on sweets
  • Drinking an occasional glass of wine (for those who can handle it)
  • Avoiding trans fats and saturated fats, which are very bad for our hearts

The diet includes more calories from fats, though from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated "good" fats. While a calorie from fat is no different (health-wise) than a calorie from carbs, the type of fat the calorie comes from makes a big difference when it comes to heart health. The trans fats and saturated fats that are typical in a Western diet put you at greater risk of diabetes and heart disease, while unsaturated fats have the opposite effect [source: Time].

Mediterranean Diet foods are high in antioxidants, which protect our cells from damage from free radicals. Additionally, fatty acids from nuts and certain oils have positive effects on our cardiovascular system.

A 2008 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine compared the weight loss of obese people placed on the Mediterranean Diet, a low-carb unrestricted-calorie diet or a low-fat restricted calorie diet. Results showed that the Mediterranean Diet helped participants lose, on average, about 9.7 pounds (4.4 kilograms) over two years, while the low-fat diet helped them lose an average of 6.4 pounds (2.9 kilograms) and the low-carb diet helped them drop about 10.4 pounds (4.7 kilograms) [source: Shai, et al]. Diabetics also responded well to this study, with increased control of insulin levels following their switch to a Mediterranean-style diet.

This diet, mixed with an active lifestyle, results in healthier hearts, longer lives and fewer heart attacks, strokes and Alzheimer's disease [source: Mayo Foundation]. A primary reason for this is the reduced presence of LDL "bad" cholesterol as a result of adopting a Mediterranean Diet.

As is so often the case with dieting, all silver linings have a dark cloud. We'll discuss some of the drawbacks of the Mediterranean Diet, next.