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by Candy Sagon
Updated September 28, 2022
For the third year in a row, U.S. News & World Report has named the Mediterranean diet the best overall eating plan. The magazine staff, along with a panel of medical and nutrition experts, evaluated 39 diets to come up with its ratings. They also judged the Mediterranean plan the easiest to follow and tied for best diet for heart health and for diabetes.
So what makes this diet so popular with doctors and dietitians?
For one thing, it has science behind it, says Nicole Brown, a nutrition consultant for the National Center for Health and Wellness and a registered dietitian with a private practice in Springfield, Virginia.
She points to studies that show the Mediterranean Diet “can help reduce blood cholesterol and triglycerides, improve blood sugar levels and help lower blood pressure.”
In addition, a five-country study published in July 2020 in the journal Gut also found the Mediterranean diet may promote healthier aging by reducing the risk of mental decline and frailty (defined as overall poor health).
Best of all, it’s a way of eating that’s pretty simple for people to follow, Brown adds.
“It emphasizes a variety of wholesome, nutrient-rich foods, like fruits, veggies, whole grains, fish and poultry, and essentially doesn’t exclude any foods, including small amounts of discretionary calories” — such as an occasional sweet treat, glass of red wine, or a small amount of red meat.
That kind of flexibility makes the diet appealing to her older clients, she says.
So how does the diet work? Here’s what you need to know:
What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?
It’s more of an eating plan than a diet, because it doesn’t have the type of rigid rules and restrictions you find in traditional diets. It’s a way of eating that emphasizes plant-based foods, which are rich in nutrients and fiber, and only a small amount of red meat and sugar. There’s also a focus on sharing meals with others, if possible, and doing something you enjoy, such as walking, dancing, gardening or yoga, to stay physically active, several times a week.
What can I eat?
You have a lot of choices. Most important are fruits, vegetables, whole grains — such as brown rice, oats, barley, whole wheat — nuts, seeds, beans and olive oil. You should eat fish or seafood at least one or two times a week; cheese, yogurt, lean poultry and eggs in low to moderate amounts; and only a little red meat. (Brown works with her clients to gradually reduce red meat to four ounces a month.) Sweets should also be limited, with fresh or frozen fruit as the preferred dessert. An occasional glass of red wine with meals is also fine.
Who came up with it?
Interest in the diet began with research done in the 1950s — before unhealthy Western food had spread across the globe — that found that people living in the Mediterranean region of the world, including Italy, Greece and neighboring countries, were healthier than the typical American. In particular, people of this region had lower rates of heart disease, thanks to their predominantly plant-based diet of foods high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, plus regular physical activity.
Why is it good for my health?
In addition to being linked to a lower risk of heart disease and other illnesses, studies have found that the Mediterranean diet may be good for the brain. Studies have linked it to a lower risk of cognitive decline or dementia, lower blood sugar levels that could help control diabetes, and a reduced risk of some cancers.
Will it help me lose weight?
The Mediterranean diet doesn’t set calorie limits, so a lot depends on how you adapt it — such as portion size, whether you exercise, and your snacking habits, among other factors.
Is it expensive to follow?
Beans and whole grains are relatively cheap, and frozen vegetables and fruits — which have equal levels of nutrients to fresh versions — are also economical choices. Nuts can be pricy, but peanuts cost less than many tree nuts and are a good source of plant-based protein.
Can you suggest a sample menu?
We’re so glad you asked. Here are some sample meals, using Staying Sharp’s healthy recipes.
Lunch: Seeded Whole-Grain Quick Bread sandwich with cheese, avocado and tomato
Ready for more delicious ideas?
Discover hundreds of recipes and how-to cooking videos that fit in with the Mediterranean diet here.
• "Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people reducing frailty and improving health status: the NU-AGE 1-year dietary intervention across five European countries," Gut, February 2020. In this study, researchers examined the DNA of gut bacteria from 612 non-frail older adults before and after the participants went on the Mediterranean diet for one year. People who stuck to the diet had changes in their gut microbiome that have been linked to a lower frailty risk, better mental function and reduced inflammation. Read the full study.
• "Mediterranean Diet and Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease in the EPIC-Spain Dementia Cohort Study," Nutrients, February 2021. Researchers looked at data on diet and dementia diagnosis in 16,160 people who were part of the European EPIC study. People who followed a Mediterranean diet most closely over the 20-year study period had a 20 percent lower risk for dementia than those who did not follow a Mediterranean diet. Read the full study.
• "Mediterranean Diet and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Perpetual Inspiration for the Scientific World. A Review," Nutrients, April 2021. Researchers reviewed studies on the effects of a Mediterranean diet in people who have or are at risk for type 2 diabetes. The authors say the studies show that following a Mediterranean diet leads to lower A1c levels, a marker of blood sugar over time, but more research is needed. Read the full study.
• "Cancer and Mediterranean Diet: A Review," Nutrients, September 2019. The authors of this review evaluated 53 studies from the past 10 years looking at the link between the Mediterranean diet and cancer. The authors concluded that the Mediterranean diet may contribute to reducing cancer because the foods it includes have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Read the full study.