Learn more about the Mediterranean diet.

If you’re thinking about changing your eating habits to improve your health but don’t know where to start, consider the Mediterranean diet. Doctors and nutritionists often recommend the Mediterranean diet for weight loss and heart health. But it offers plenty of other benefits too.

Here’s what you should know about this diet, including its benefits for disease prevention and weight loss and how to follow it.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

Although it’s a “diet,” the Mediterranean diet is more of a long-term way of eating. It reflects the traditional foods and eating habits of people living in countries along the Mediterranean Sea, including:

  • Greece.
  • Italy.
  • North Africa.
  • Parts of the Middle East.
  • Southern France.
  • Spain.

Traditionally, people in these Mediterranean regions ate home-cooked meals prepared with fresh, local ingredients. Most meals were vegetarian, with occasional seafood, local cheese, and yogurt. They reserved meat, sugar, and desserts for special occasions and enjoyed a glass of red wine with dinner.

Decades ago, researchers noticed that people in Mediterranean countries who ate this way had lower rates of heart disease. That prompted more research into the Mediterranean diet and uncovered even more potential benefits.

The modern version of this diet stresses the old ways of eating, with these foods as the foundation:

  • Fish and seafood twice weekly.
  • Fruits and vegetables with every meal.
  • Legumes (beans, chickpeas, and lentils) every day.
  • Nuts and seeds every day.
  • Olive oil with most meals.
  • Red meat and poultry (chicken and turkey) in low to moderate amounts.
  • Whole grains like farro, whole wheat, and oats every day.
  • Yogurt and cheese in low to moderate amounts.
  • Spices and fresh herbs as seasonings.
  • Alcohol in moderate amounts, usually a glass of wine with dinner.

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Why Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

Researchers have studied this diet since the 1960s. Many studies show that compared to a standard American diet, following a Mediterranean diet pattern over the long term can:

  • Decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Improve blood pressure.
  • Improve blood sugar levels if you have diabetes or reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Maintain brain function with aging and decrease the risk of dementia.
  • Promote a healthy weight.
  • Reduce fatty liver disease.
  • Reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, stomach, and liver cancer.

These health benefits likely come from the range of nutrients in traditional Mediterranean diet foods. For example:

  • Fish and seafood are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These can reduce blood pressure and inflammation and protect your heart and brain.
  • Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are high in fiber, which helps balance blood sugar and lower cholesterol. They also have plenty of potassium, which helps improve blood pressure, and antioxidants, which protect against cancer.
  • Nuts and seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fats, which can lower cholesterol and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
  • Olives and olive oil are full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and antioxidants called polyphenols. These protect blood vessels in your heart, brain, and body.
  • Spices and fresh herbs also have plenty of antioxidants that protect cells from oxidative damage.

In addition, the Mediterranean diet is healthy because it doesn’t include foods that promote chronic disease when eaten in excess, such as:

  • Foods and drinks with added sugar, like cakes, cookies, and sweetened soft drinks.
  • Highly processed foods, including packaged snacks and meals, fried, and fast foods.
  • Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats, and cheese, like American cheese.
  • Refined and hydrogenated oils, like corn, soybean, and palm oil.

The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet likely come from all these elements together rather than any individual food or nutrient.

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet for Weight Loss

When it comes to eating for weight loss, nutrition experts agree that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. What’s most important is finding a healthy long-term eating pattern that works for you. The Mediterranean diet may promote weight loss in several ways.

First, it’s flexible. There are no specific rules about what to avoid at each meal. Instead, the focus is on adding more high-fiber plant foods that are relatively low in calories.

And given the many countries and cuisines around the Mediterranean, the diet also provides lots of flavor and variety. This means you can eat healthy meals and snacks that are also tasty and interesting.

Finally, this diet is filling, with lots of fiber and healthy fat. Feeling full and satisfied makes you less likely to overeat, snack mindlessly, and crave sweets.

This diet doesn’t guarantee weight loss but certainly makes it possible. And studies suggest that it can help you lose abdominal fat, resulting in a smaller waist size.

How to Eat a Mediterranean Diet

These tips can help you shift your current way of eating to a Mediterranean diet:

  • Aim to eat more fruits and vegetables by including a serving or two with every meal and snack.
  • Eat fresh fruit for dessert instead of baked sweets.
  • Eat a handful of nuts or seeds every day. Try sprinkling them on oatmeal, adding them to a snack plate, or using them to add crunch to a salad.
  • Instead of buying packaged snack foods, prep some snacks for the week. Cut up fresh vegetables, make a Greek yogurt or hummus-based dip, and package it up with whole-grain crackers and nuts.
  • Swap red meat for fish or a vegetarian meal one or two nights each week.
  • Use olive oil instead of butter for cooking or seasoning your food.

Changing your diet can feel overwhelming, but working on small, gradual changes makes it easier. Choose one thing to work on each week, then add more healthy swaps over time.

With its flexibility and health benefits, the Mediterranean diet is worth trying. There are many cookbooks and online resources available for recipes and meal inspiration. If you need help or direction, ask your nutritionist for guidance.

Journal of Internal Medicine. The Mediterranean Diet and Health: A Comprehensive Overview. LINK

Oldways. Mediterranean Diet. LINK

About UPMC Nutrition Services

Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.