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The Top 5 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Following the Mediterranean Diet

It's always been at the forefront of healthy diets, and here's exactly why it's so good for your health.
The Top 5 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Following the Mediterranean Diet

It’s not really new news that the Mediterranean diet is one of the top healthy eating plans to follow. In fact, it was recently named the best diet of 2019 by the U.S. News & World Report (it edged out the DASH diet for the top spot).

In comparison with the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian countries, the prevalence of cancer is much lower in the Mediterranean region. This part of the world also reports a much lower incidence of heart disease than the United States. The reason? Likely, it all comes down to what they’re eating, which are the foods in a Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and olive oil and low in red meat, sugar, and processed foods. This healthy eating plan hosts a slew of health benefits, five of such benefits are showcased here, all of which are heavily backed by research. Read on to find out just how the predominantly plant-based Mediterranean diet can keep both the body and mind in good health.

1

The Mediterranean diet may help prevent cardiovascular disease.

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The Mediterranean diet is perhaps most well-regarded for its ability to ward off chronic disease, specifically heart disease. Several studies have been conducted on this throughout the years, and while there are many factors that could lead to cardiovascular disease, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to decrease the risk of developing it in both short- and long-term studies in men and women.

One such study published in the New England Journal of Medicine called the PREDIMED trial involved 7,477 participants from Spain, all of whom were between the ages of 55 and 80 and who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease. The participants—57 percent of which were women—were divided into three different groups: One group followed the Mediterranean diet supplemented with an additional four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil daily. Another group followed the Mediterranean diet and supplemented with a combination of 30 grams of mixed nuts including almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts. The third group was considered the control group—they didn’t follow the Mediterranean diet and instead followed a low-fat diet. All of the participants were followed for a median of 4.8 years, and, after a revision from the 2013 study, it was confirmed that the chances of having a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or stroke in those that consumed the Mediterranean diet—either supplemented with nuts or olive oil—were 30 percent less than those who just consumed a low-fat diet.

Another study also showed promising results. A team of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a study that analyzed 25,000 American women over the course of up to 12 years. They discovered that the women who consumed a middle and upper intake of the Mediterranean diet experienced an average of 25 percent fewer incidents of stroke and heart attack than the women who only followed a low intake plan.

2

The Mediterranean diet may improve memory and cognition in older adults.

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A significant concern for older adults is developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, both of which are believed to be caused by inflammation in the brain. Both conditions cause a repeated loss of memory, and because the myriad of foods that correspond with the Mediterranean diet all work to reduce inflammation in the body, a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society was conducted to see if the diet could improve memory in older adults. The study was called the Health and Retirement Study, which included 5,907 older adults. Participants either recorded following the Mediterranean-style diet, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegeneration Delay (MIND diet), or an unhealthy diet.

For context, the MIND diet consists of 10 “brain-healthy foods” you should eat, such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and whole grains, and five unhealthy foods you should avoid, including butter, cheese, sweets, red meat, fried and fast foods.

The results? Those who followed the Mediterranean-style diet had a 35 percent lower risk of scoring poorly on their cognitive tests. Those who recorded eating a moderate Mediterranean-style diet even decreased their chances of scoring poorly on the test by as much as 15 percent. Researchers even noted similar findings in those who reported eating the MIND diet.

3

The Mediterranean diet could lessen the risk of developing depression.

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Memory isn’t the only component of the brain that the Mediterranean diet works to improve. According to a recent comprehensive study published by Molecular Psychiatry, there is a link between the Mediterranean diet and a decreased prevalence of depression. This giant study was an aggregation of results from 41 different studies, four of which actually examined the association between the Mediterranean diet and depression over time in 36,556 adults. Among these four longitudinal studies (which simply means they focused on these same participants for a period of time) it was found that those who followed the diet had a 33 percent lower risk of developing depression than those who followed a diet that was not even comparable to that of the Mediterranean one.

4

The Mediterranean diet could ward off specific types of cancer.

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According to the National Cancer Institute, some 38.4 percent of Americans are projected to get cancer at some point during their life. Allowing the right food to be part of your preventive care plan may be enough to help dodge being a part of that statistic. A 2017 comprehensive study examined a compilation of 83 studies, examining more than 2 million people. Researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop cancer—specifically colorectal cancer—and were overall less likely to die from cancer. Even more, they were able to report a 6 percent decrease in the onset of breast cancer—a cancer that, prior to this study had not been associated with the Mediterranean diet.

5

The Mediterranean diet is protective against type 2 diabetes.

Consuming a plant-based diet over a lifestyle that is full of processed and fried foods is perhaps one of the best ways to steer clear of developing type 2 diabetes, which is the form of diabetes that develops as a result of poor diet. Even more, this diet is said to help those who already have the condition control their blood sugar levels, as well as decrease their chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

Type 2 diabetes is, in fact, a reversible metabolic state. This is primarily done through weight loss from a combination of both exercise and adopting a healthier diet. People living with type 2 diabetes experience what’s called insulin resistance, meaning they cannot make enough insulin to keep their blood sugar levels under control. The key is to keep carbohydrate consumption low so that the body isn’t always in this hyperglycemic state or a state of high blood sugar. The Mediterranean diet boasts a diet rich in vegetables, which are great for keeping blood sugar levels in check.

According to one study, the Mediterranean diet helped people who were both overweight and had type 2 diabetes lose weight, more so than those who just followed a low-fat diet. More importantly, after four years on the Mediterranean diet, only 44 percent of participants had to go on medication to help treat their diabetes. This is much less than the 70 percent of those who had to turn to medication to treat their condition after consuming only a low-fat diet. Other studies have shown the Mediterranean diet can help promote better glycemic control and fend off heart disease in those with type 2 diabetes.

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