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December 19, 2022

Trying to eat more heart-healthy foods? Switch to the Mediterranean diet

Here's how to get started on a meal plan lauded as one of the healthiest and easiest to follow

Healthy Eating Diets
Mediterranean diet Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil and limiting consumption of red meats. It is considered a heart healthy diet.

The Mediterranean diet is continuously touted by nutrition experts for its many health benefits and its ease of use. Research has shown that it not only is a heart healthy diet, but that it also reduces the risk of chronic diseases, like diabetes, and improves longevity. 

Advocates of the Mediterranean diet – which has been named the best overall diet by U.S. News & World Report for five straight years – say it is more like a lifestyle. Besides selecting healthier food choices, they emphasize the enjoyment of eating with loved ones and staying physically active. For them, it's all about a life of moderation, including alcohol consumption. 

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil. It also recommends eating fish or seafood a few times each week, and keeping red meat to a minimum. It does not require calorie-counting. 

In 2022, the Mediterranean diet also was named the best for healthy eating, the best for preventing diabetes and the best plant-based diet by U.S. News. 

If your New Year's resolutions include eating healthier, here is what you need to know about adopting this diet. 

The benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Studies suggest the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, memory loss, depression and breast cancer, and strengthens the heart and bones. But one of the most researched benefits of the Mediterranean diet is its reduction in heart disease risk.

In one study, researchers gave guidance on the Mediterranean diet to 7,000 people with type 2 diabetes or high risk of cardiovascular disease, but they did not tell them to restrict their calories. Those who supplemented their diets with olive oil or mixed nuts, as instructed, were 30% less likely to suffer a cardiovascular event during the five-year follow-up period compared to the control group. 

The Mediterranean diet also appears to improve cognition, and may reduce the risk of dementia, although more research is needed to confirm this. In one small study, people who fared poorly at following a Mediterranean style eating pattern had more more beta-amyloid deposits – protein plaques in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer's disease – and lower energy use in the brain.

Another study, of 10,670 women ages 57-61, found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet were 46% more likely to age healthy – defined as living to age 70 without developing any chronic diseases or suffering major declines in mental or physical function. 

Research also has shown that the Mediterranean diet improves blood sugar control more than other diets among people with type 2 diabetes.

Women who eat a Mediterranean-style diet during pregnancy are less likely to develop preeclampsia, research shows. A study by Johns Hopkins found their risk was cut by more than 20%. Black women, who have a higher risk of preeclampsia, had the biggest reductions in risk. 

And a recent study found that eating a Mediterranean diet may improve fertility and the likelihood that assisted reproductive technology will be successful. The researchers found that the anti-inflammatory qualities of the diet improve the regularity of a woman's menstrual cycle, embryo quality, live birth rates and men's sperm quality.

Other researchers have tried tweaking the Mediterranean diet and found that a greener version might even be healthier. This version emphasizes polyphenol-rich foods like leafy greens, duckweed, green tea and walnuts, and eliminates red and processed meat entirely. By eating more greens and cutting out the red and processed meat, participants reduced their visceral fat – the fat around the body's organs – by 14% over an 18-month period, they found. Too much visceral fat can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

A green Mediterranean diet also has been proven to reduce LDL cholesterol levels, diastolic blood pressure and inflammatory markers better than the traditional version.

Researchers are continuing to explore the potential wide-ranging benefits of following the Mediterranean diet. Some data suggests it can reduce the risk of some cancers and may improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and depression. Larger studies, however, are needed to confirm these findings.

How to get started

The key to a Mediterranean eating style is to choose fresh, whole foods as much as possible, nutritionists say. This means avoiding foods like white bread, processed meats, candy and soda. 

There are several small steps that people can take to get started. Stock the kitchen with foods like spinach, potatoes, beans, salmon, milk, Greek yogurt, oats, olives, peaches, hummus, nuts, herbs and spices like cinnamon, garlic, ginger and turmeric, and even a little dark chocolate. Try using olive oil to cook and adding one seafood meal to the weekly menu. And make sure to have healthy – but fulfilling – snacks on hand to avoid the temptation to nosh on junk food. EatingWell has a full list of ingredients for the pantry here.

Dietitians recommend that at least 75% of one's plate be filled with plant-based foods, especially vegetables. The other 25% should focus on healthy fats or lean proteins. Try to have a vegetable and a fruit at every meal.

The experts at Women's Health Magazine, CookingLight, and Healthline offer some simple meal combos that can help people get started.

For breakfast:

• Scrambled eggs with spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes
• Steel cut oats with warm berry compote
• Eggs and sautéed vegetables with whole wheat toast

For lunch:

• Grilled fish with brown rice, grilled zucchini, bell pepper and red onion
• Chicken and cucumber salad with parsley pesto
• A tuna salad with greens and olive oil and a fruit salad

For dinner:

• Lentil soup with celery, carrots, onion, tomatoes and mushrooms
• Grilled salmon with avocado salsa
• Seared mediterranean tuna steaks

For snacks:

• Carrot hummus with cumin and almonds served with fresh vegetables
• Hard-boiled egg with salt and pepper
• Apple slices with almond butter

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