The Mediterranean diet is known as the gold standard of heart-healthy eating, with well-studied health benefits including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.
“It’s one of a small number of diets that has research to back it up,” said Dr. Sean Heffron, a preventive cardiologist at NYU Langone Health. “It isn’t a diet that was cooked up in the mind of some person to generate money. It’s something that was developed over time, by millions of people, because it actually tastes good. And it just happens to be healthy.”
The Mediterranean diet isn’t as much a strict meal plan as it is a lifestyle, said Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian who specializes in preventive cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. People who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to “eat foods their grandparents would recognize,” Dr. Heffron added: whole, unprocessed foods with few or no additives.
The diet prioritizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs, spices and olive oil. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines and tuna, are the preferred animal protein source. Other lean animal proteins, like chicken or turkey, are eaten to a lesser extent. And foods high in saturated fats, like red meat and butter, are eaten rarely. Eggs and dairy products like yogurt and cheese can also be part of the Mediterranean diet, but in moderation. And moderate alcohol consumption, like a glass of wine at dinner, is allowed.
“It’s very easy to follow, very sustainable, very realistic,” Ms. Zumpano said. A number of rigorous studies have found that the Mediterranean diet contributes to better health, and in particular better heart health, in a variety of ways. In one study, published in 2018, researchers assessed nearly 26,000 women and found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely for up to 12 years had about a 25 percent reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This was mainly because of changes in blood sugar, inflammation and body mass index, the researchers reported. Other studies, in men and women, have reached similar conclusions.
Research has also found that the diet can protect against oxidative stress, which can cause DNA damage that contributes to chronic conditions like neurological disease and cancer. And some studies suggest it can help reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
The diet may also have profound health benefits during pregnancy, said Dr. Anum Sohail Minhas, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. In a recent study of nearly 7,800 women published in December, researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely around the time they conceived and during early pregnancy had about a 21 percent reduced risk of any pregnancy complications, such as pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes or preterm birth. “There definitely seems to be a protective effect,” Dr. Minhas said.
The Mediterranean diet should inspire a long-term shift in eating behavior. In one study of more than 30,000 people living in Italy, for instance, researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely for about 12 years were less likely to become overweight or obese than those who followed the diet less closely. A smaller study, published in 2020, enrolled 565 adults who had intentionally lost 10 percent or more of their body weight in the year prior. It found that those who reported adhering to the Mediterranean diet closely were twice as likely to maintain their weight loss as those who did not closely follow the diet.