The word “diet” can have a lot of people running for the hills. It can mean cutting out entire food groups, such as carbohydrates or dairy. Or, it can mean adopting a very restricted way of eating, like endlessly counting calories.
Either way, the goal may be to lose weight — but it can make eating a lot less enjoyable.
The Mediterranean diet is not as much as a diet as it is a way of life. For hundreds of years, people in Italy, Spain, and other countries in the Mediterranean region have been eating this way. And it’s ended up benefiting their health in many ways, such as lowering cholesterol and risk of heart disease.
“The Mediterranean "diet" is not just about food, but also about lifestyle. It encourages people to be more active, to enjoy food in the company of friends and/or family, and enjoy life,” said Kim Knipe, MBA, RD, LDN, and bariatric program coordinator at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Eating the Mediterranean Way: How It’s Done
Because it’s not exactly a diet as we usually use the word, there’s no one way to eat the Mediterranean way. However, there’s a common theme among the 16 countries in the region.
Compared to a typical American diet, the Mediterranean diet includes fewer meats and carbohydrates, higher amounts of monounsaturated (good) fats, and more plant-based foods like vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.
The diet has no restrictions, meaning there’s nothing you have to completely avoid — you just can’t eat foods in unlimited quantities. This can make it a little more refreshing for people who don’t want to cut out certain foods entirely.
What the Mediterranean Diet Can Do for Your Health
By avoiding foods like red meat, sweets, and butter, you can lower your chances of certain health concerns, and completely prevent others. Here are four ways that eating according to the Mediterranean diet can benefit your health.
1. Lower your cholesterol
There are two kinds of cholesterol — the kind your body makes and the kind you eat. The cholesterol you make helps you digest fatty foods.
Many foods that contain a lot of cholesterol are foods that should be avoided — or at least cut back on — on the Mediterranean diet. Of all the fat calories in typical Mediterranean diet foods, more than half are from monounsaturated fats — mostly from olive oil. This kind of fat doesn’t raise blood cholesterol levels the way that saturated fat — which is found in foods such as fatty beef, butter, and cheese — does.
Cholesterol that comes from your diet usually comes from animal foods, such as egg yolks, fatty meats, and cheese. Too much cholesterol in your diet can cause this substance to build up in your arteries. If this happens, your arteries can become narrowed, which can either reduce or completely block how much blood gets through them. This puts you at risk of heart disease and stroke.
“People that want to follow the Mediterranean eating pattern can start by substituting most of their butter for a small amount of olive oil, half their meat for beans, most of their soda for water, and a daily dessert for daily fresh fruit. These simple changes can have big health benefits,” explained Kim.
2. Lower your risk of heart disease
High levels of cholesterol can build up in your arteries, leading to the most common kind of heart disease — coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD can make it so your heart isn’t able to provide your body with the blood it needs to function, which can lead to an irregular heartbeat or even heart failure.
In the Mediterranean countries, fewer people have heart disease, and death rates from heart disease are lower, too.
This may be because the foods they eat are lower in saturated fat — the type of fat which causes that buildup of cholesterol in your blood.
3. Prevent and treat diabetes
People with diabetes have a harder time using the food they eat to make energy. This causes sugar to build up in the blood, which can lead to heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and more.
Diabetes can be caused by a combination of your genetics and your lifestyle habits. While you can’t control your genes, your diet is one of the most significant lifestyle factors that you can control. Studies have shown diets high in plant-based foods and low in animal-based fatty foods — like the Mediterranean diet — can both prevent and manage diabetes.
Foods from the Mediterranean diet have been shown to help your body manage blood sugar levels, which is the primary concern in people with diabetes. The diet may also help reduce complications of diabetes, such as heart disease, or problems with kidney function or sexual function.
4. Help you lose weight
While it’s not necessarily the primary goal of the diet, losing weight is a positive side effect of the Mediterranean diet. Studies have shown that people who follow the diet have been able to lose weight and keep it off for more than a year.
This diet may also be more effective at helping you lose weight than a low-fat diet — where you monitor your fat intake. And, it may be just as effective as commercial diets, where you follow a regimented (and often costly) program.
When the Mediterranean Diet Can Cause Problems
As with any diet, restricting or completely cutting out certain food groups can have a negative impact on your health. In some cases, the Mediterranean diet may lead to:
- Weight gain from eating more than the recommended amount of fat (such as in olive oil and nuts)
- Low levels of iron from not eating enough meat
- Calcium loss from eating fewer dairy products
If you choose to follow the Mediterranean diet, talk to your primary care provider about ways to keep your diet balanced, as well as any supplements that you can take.
Eating Healthy — Diet or No Diet?
If you’re looking to lose weight or simply stay healthy, the Mediterranean diet is a well-rounded way of eating with no absolute food restrictions. Regardless, it’s still important that you visit your primary care provider regularly to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients.
"The Mediterranean eating pattern is not only delicious, it's relatively affordable and accessible since it promotes less meat and more inexpensive food like beans,” said Kim.
The best part of the Mediterranean diet? You can find ways to make it work for your taste buds — and it’ll feel like you’re not even on a diet.
Do you have questions about the Mediterranean diet or other dieting programs? Request an appointment with a Penn Medicine primary care provider online or by calling 800-789-7366.