What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

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A plate of Mediterranean vegetables

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The Mediterranean diet is a term used to describe the eating patterns of people living along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, including Italy, Spain, southern France, and Greece.

This way of eating prioritizes whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, and legumes, and is low in ultra-processed and convenience foods.

The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a variety of health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to promoting a healthy body weight.

Read on to learn more about the Mediterranean diet, including its potential benefits, foods to eat and avoid, and how to follow this way of eating to improve your overall health.

How to Follow the Mediterranean Diet

Although the Mediterranean diet is a general term used to describe different dietary patterns in the Mediterranean region, most Mediterranean-type diets are high in plant foods, like vegetables, legumes, grains, and nuts.

The modern-day Mediterranean diet that’s promoted to improve health is based on the eating patterns of people in the Mediterranean region before large-scale trade of food products became available. People ate what was available to them in their region and, as a result, ate more seasonally.

Traditional Mediterranean diets relied heavily on whole, nutrient-dense, local foods and were low in ultra-processed foods. 

Even though no foods are off limits on the Mediterranean diet, those following this eating pattern should reduce their intake of ultra-processed foods and added sugar in order to resemble traditional methods of this diet.

Foods You Can Eat

The Mediterranean diet focuses on the following foods:

  • Vegetables: greens, zucchini, squash, asparagus, etc.
  • Fruits: Apples, berries, citrus fruits, figs, etc.
  • Grains: millet, barley, farro, buckwheat, etc. 
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, white beans, etc.
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, walnuts, etc.
  • Seafood and poultry: Fish, mussels, shrimp, chicken breast, etc. 
  • Herbs and spices: rosemary, basil, black pepper, garlic, cinnamon, etc.

Olive oil is the main fat source of the Mediterranean diet. This is because olive oil is produced in many Mediterranean countries and is widely available in these areas.

Other foods like dairy, meat, and eggs are eaten in moderation. People following Mediterranean diets often consume low-to-moderate amounts of wine, mainly red wine.

Foods to Limit

There are no foods that are completely off-limits when following the Mediterranean diet, as it’s more of an eating pattern than a regimented diet. 

That said since the Mediterranean diet is based on traditional eating patterns that focused on whole, nutrient-dense foods, it’s best to limit the following foods and drinks:

  • Ultra-processed foods: candy, fast food, ultra-processed snack foods, etc.
  • Processed meats: bacon, lunch meats, hot dogs, etc.
  • Added sugar and sugary foods: soda, energy drinks, cakes, cookies, etc.
  • Refined grains: whole grains should be prioritized over refined grains and refined grain products.

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Decades of scientific research have linked the Mediterranean diet to health benefits including lower rates of chronic diseases and lower body weight levels.

It’s believed that the powerful health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are primarily due to its high levels of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds and its ability to control body weight. 

Nutrients found in the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet help reduce inflammation, protect against cellular damage, and improve feelings of fullness, all of which promote overall health. 

Improves Heart Health

One of the most well-known benefits of the Mediterranean diet is its ability to protect and improve heart health. Research findings suggest that the Mediterranean-type diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease through several mechanisms.  

Foods prioritized in the Mediterranean diet—like olive oil, fruits, and vegetables—help reduce something called atherosclerosis, a medical term for the buildup of fatty deposits (plaque) in the arteries.

Protective compounds like polyphenol antioxidants found in olive oil and other foods found in the Mediterranean diet help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which play key roles in the development of atherosclerosis.

A 2021 article that included 939 people with heart disease found that participants who followed an olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet for seven years had decreased atherosclerosis progression compared to those who followed a low-fat diet.

In addition to reducing plaque buildup, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve heart disease risk factors like low HDL cholesterol and high blood pressure. This may be why it’s so effective for protecting against heart disease. 

A 2019 review concluded that adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet was associated with meaningful reductions in coronary heart disease and total cardiovascular disease.

May Boost Brain Health

The Mediterranean diet is rich in foods that may help protect brain health and promote brain function.

People who follow the Mediterranean diet have lower rates of age-related cognitive decline, better memory, and are at a lower risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2021 study that analyzed data on 512 people, including those at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease, found that participants who adhered to a Mediterranean diet had a larger volume of gray matter brain tissue, better memory, and less accumulation of amyloid plaques, which are protein deposits involved in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Decreased gray matter volume or atrophy is associated with cognitive decline. 

The protective compounds found in the Mediterranean diet are thought to protect the brain from damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation, which can help promote healthy aging and reduce cognitive decline and neurodegenerative disease risk.

May Reduce the Risk of Stroke

The Mediterranean diet may improve blood vessel health and promote healthy blood flow, which can protect against strokes

A 2019 review concluded that adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet was associated with meaningful reductions in ischemic stroke risk.

Ischemic strokes occur when blood supply to the brain is obstructed. Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel ruptures and bleeds into the brain.

Another 2019 review found that following the Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower risk of ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes in both Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean populations.

Can Help Promote a Healthy Body Weight

The Mediterranean diet is rich in foods known to support a healthy body weight, including fiber, healthy fats, and proteins. Plus, it’s low in foods that can contribute to weight gain, like ultra-processed foods, saturated fats found in fried foods, and added sugars.

A 2018 study that included 32,119 Italian men and women found that adherence to a traditional Italian Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of becoming overweight or obese, a lower risk of high belly fat levels, and a smaller five-year change in waist circumference.

A 2022 review that included data on over 650,000 people found that following a Mediterranean diet was significantly associated with a 9% decreased risk of becoming overweight or obese over a five-year period.

The Mediterranean diet is an excellent choice for promoting weight loss as it’s not as restrictive as many popular diets and includes foods that promote overall health.

May Protect Against a Number of Diseases

In addition to protecting against heart disease and cognitive decline, adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Studies show that following the Mediterranean diet could help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and promote healthy blood sugar control in those with type 2 diabetes.

People who adhere to a Mediterranean-type diet have also been shown to have lower rates of certain cancers, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and stomach cancer.

Some evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet may also protect against inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis, preterm birth, kidney stones, dry eye, macular degeneration, and depression.

What’s more, people who follow the Mediterranean diet are more likely to live longer and healthier lives.

Risks of the Mediterranean Diet

Because the Mediterranean diet is a balanced, nutritionally-dense way of eating that doesn’t restrict any foods, it’s not associated with any health risks.

The Mediterranean diet can be modified to suit almost any dietary preference, including vegan and vegetarian diets. 

Plant-based diets are more likely to be low or deficient in several nutrients, like iron, zinc, B12, and iodine. For this reason, people following plant-based Mediterranean diets should carefully plan their diet to ensure nutritional adequacy and supplement with nutrients that may be low in their diet.

Lastly, although wine is a part of many traditional Mediterranean diets, don’t feel that you have to increase your alcohol intake when following this way of eating. Low to moderate alcohol consumption typically isn’t harmful, but drinking too much alcohol, even red wine, can negatively impact your health in many ways.

A Quick Review

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy way of eating high in plant foods, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes.

It’s linked to a variety of health benefits and may help reduce your risk of health conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Plus, it could help you maintain a healthy weight.

If you’re interested in shifting to a more Mediterranean-style eating pattern, try adding some of the foods listed in this article to your diet and reducing your intake of ultra-processed foods. 

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14 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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