The Mediterranean diet refers to the traditional diet consumed by people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. While food and eating styles differ—there is certainly a difference between Italian cuisine and Moroccan food—there are many commonalities. For example, a Mediterranean diet generally emphasizes plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables, beans, fruits, and nuts. Olive oil is the primary source of fat, and dairy is consumed only in moderation. Red meat, added sugars, and highly processed foods are very limited.
Studies have consistently shown that this diet leads to significantly improved health outcomes.
Many studies show a link between cancer and the Mediterranean diet. Although the specifics can vary depending on the type of cancer, generally speaking, the Mediterranean diet is composed of foods that are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties that can help to prevent or slow down damage to cellular DNA and make cells less susceptible to becoming cancerous.
The anti-inflammatory properties of the Mediterranean diet can also have an effect on rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. The diet not only emphasizes many anti-inflammatory foods, such as berries, fish, and olive oil, but it also limits foods like red meat, sugar, and dairy that are known to exacerbate inflammation. As a result, studies suggest that the diet can reduce the joint pain associated with arthritis while also helping manage weight. Maintaining a healthy body weight helps reduce pressure on joints and cuts down on the inflammation caused by excess fat cells.
Obesity is a well-known risk factor for many chronic diseases. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to help people lose weight and to maintain weight loss. These benefits are likely due to the diet’s emphasis on healthier fats like olive oil and nuts, lower intake of saturated fats, and the inclusion of high amounts of fiber and antioxidants. Because eating this way is sustainable, unlike many fad diets, people are more likely to keep consuming these foods and less likely to binge or revert to less nutritious choices.
Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that prevents the body from regulating sugar properly. Obesity is a primary risk factor for the development of diabetes, so the diet’s aforementioned impact on weight management also helps with diabetes prevention. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to have a positive impact on blood sugar levels and insulin, both of which help prevent the development of diabetes. A study of older adults who followed the Mediterranean diet found that they had a 52% lower risk of developing the condition.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, means that the heart must work harder to pump blood throughout the body. It is a risk factor for other serious problems, like heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet can help lower blood pressure, likely because it includes many nutrients and ingredients associated with controlling blood pressure, including olive oil, berries, and tomatoes.
Another positive effect of the Mediterranean diet on heart health is decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), the leading cause of death worldwide. A large study in Spain looked at participants who were at high risk for CVD and found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had significantly reduced incidence of serious cardiovascular events like heart attacks.
Research has consistently shown that the majority of strokes are preventable. Lifestyle and diet management are two major components of preventing strokes, and there is clear evidence that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk for some people. Specifically, researchers found that the diet lowers the risk for women ages 40 to 77, particularly women who were at the highest risk of having a stroke. The diet has also been found to decrease the severity of stroke among stroke patients.
Eating a Mediterranean diet has been associated with a lower incidence of many age-related diseases. One large cohort study found that middle-aged women who followed the diet were more likely to have specific biomarkers that are indicative of longer life expectancy and lower rates of age-related chronic diseases. They were also more likely to exhibit characteristics of healthy aging, like the ability to function independently and maintain relationships.
Cognitive decline is another common and well-documented aspect of aging. Increasingly, researchers believe that a healthy diet and lifestyle are effective ways to prevent or delay this decline. In fact, a comprehensive review of recent studies suggests that the Mediterranean diet can have a positive impact on memory and cognitive function and that it may lead to a reduction in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The Mediterranean diet can also have a positive impact on mental health. A large-scale analysis of more than 40 studies showed that the diet reduced the risk of depression by nearly a third. The specific reasons remain uncertain, but given that depression affects more than 300 million people globally, this is another very significant benefit of following the Mediterranean diet.
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