The aim: May include weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control.
The claim: You’ll lose weight, keep it off and avoid a host of chronic diseases.
The theory: It’s generally accepted that the folks in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea live longer and suffer less than most Americans from cancer and cardiovascular ailments. The not-so-surprising secret is an active lifestyle, weight control, and a diet low in red meat, sugar and saturated fat and high in produce, nuts and other healthful foods.
Mediterranean Diet is ranked:
Weight Loss Short-Term3.4
Weight Loss Long-Term3.2
Easy to Follow3.7
Scores are based on experts’ reviews.
How does Mediterranean Diet work?
Dos & Don’ts
It depends – there isn’t “a” Mediterranean diet. Greeks eat differently from Italians, who eat differently from the French and Spanish. But they share many of the same principles. Working with the Harvard School of Public Health, Oldways, a nonprofit food think tank in Boston, developed a consumer-friendly Mediterranean diet pyramid that emphasizes eating fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and flavorful herbs and spices; fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week; and poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation, while saving sweets and red meat for special occasions. Top it off with a splash of red wine (if you want), remember to stay physically active and you’re set.
[Also check out the Mayo Clinic Diet, which features a two-part approach to losing weight.]
Because this is an eating pattern – not a structured diet – you’re on your own to figure out how many calories you should eat to lose or maintain your weight, what you’ll do to stay active and how you’ll shape your Mediterranean menu.
How much does it cost?
Like most aspects of the diet, it depends. While some ingredients (olive oil, nuts, fish and fresh produce in particular) can be expensive, you can find ways to keep the tab reasonable – especially if you’re replacing red meats and meals with plant-based home cooking, some research suggests. Your shopping choices matter, too. Can’t spring for the $50 bottle of wine? Grab one for $15 instead. And snag whatever veggies are on sale that day, rather than the $3-a-piece artichokes.
Will you lose weight?
While some people fear that eating a diet like the Mediterranean diet that is relatively rich in fats (think olive oil, olives, avocado and some cheese) will keep them fat, more and more research is suggesting the opposite is true. Of course, it depends on which aspects you adopt and how it compares to your current diet. If, for instance, you build a “calorie deficit” into your plan – eating fewer calories than your daily recommended max or burning off extra by exercising – you should shed some pounds. How quickly and whether you keep them off is up to you.
Here’s a look at a few studies addressing weight loss:
- A 2016 study in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology journal that analyzed data from Predimed – a five-year trial including 7,447 adults with Type 2 diabetes or at risk for cardiovascular disease who were assigned either a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil, the same diet supplemented with nuts or a control diet – found that people on the Mediterranean versions added the fewest inches to their waistlines. The olive oil folks lost the most weight.
- A 2010 study in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism assigned 259 overweight diabetics to one of three diets: a low-carb Mediterranean diet, a traditional Mediterranean diet or a diet based on recommendations from the American Diabetes Association. All groups were told to exercise 30 to 45 minutes at least three times per week. After a year, all groups lost weight; the traditional group lost an average of about 16 pounds while the ADA group dropped 17 pounds and the low-carb group lost 22 pounds.
- Another study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008, assigned 322 moderately obese adults to one of three diets: calorie-restricted low-fat; calorie-restricted Mediterranean; and non-calorie-restricted low-carb. After two years, the Mediterranean group had lost an average of 9 7/10 pounds; the low-fat group, 6 4/10 pounds; and the low-carb group, 10 3/10 pounds. Although weight loss didn’t differ greatly between the low-carb and Mediterranean groups, both lost appreciably more than the low-fat group did.
- A 2008 analysis of 21 studies in the journal Obesity Reviews concluded the jury is still out on whether following the Mediterranean diet will lead to weight loss or a lower likelihood of being overweight or obese.
How easy is it to follow?
Because Mediterranean diets don’t ban entire food groups, you shouldn’t have trouble complying long term.
Convenience: When you want to cook, there’s a recipe and complementary wine that’ll transport you across the Atlantic. Oldways’ consumer-friendly tips will make meal planning and prepping easier. And you can eat out, as long as you bring someone along to share the hefty entrees.
Recipes: Oldways offers numerous recipes, including this guide featuring meals that all cost $2 or less a serving. Otherwise, a simple Google search will turn up lots of healthy Mediterranean meal ideas. Want more inspiration? Oldways recommends “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health.”
Eating out: If you do, embrace the diet’s affinity for sharing by ordering one entree for the two of you. And be sure to start with a house salad or order extra veggies a la carte to get your fill.
Stressed? Busy? Here’s how to keep life from sidelining your weight-loss progress.
Alcohol: What’s a Mediterranean diet without wine? While certainly not required, a glass a day for women and two a day for men is fine if your doctor says so. Red wine has gotten a boost because it contains resveratrol, a compound that seems to add years to life – but you’d have to drink hundreds or thousands of glasses to get enough resveratrol to possibly make a difference.
Timesavers: You may save time by cooking and storing meals ahead of time; otherwise, you’ll have to hire somebody to plan, shop for and prepare your meals, if your time is more valuable than your wallet.
Extras: You’ll find lots of free Mediterranean diet resources on the Oldways website, including an easy-to-understand food pyramid; a printable grocery list; gender- and age-specific tips on making the Mediterranean switch; a quick-read “starter” brochure; a recipe newsletter; and even a glossary defining Mediterranean staples, from bruschetta to tapenade.
Fullness: Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. Hunger shouldn’t be a problem on this diet; fiber and healthy fats are filling, and you’ll be eating lots of fiber-packed produce and whole grains, and cooking with satiating fats like olive oil.
Taste: You’re making everything, so if something doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame.
Health & Nutrition
A Mediterranean diet-style buffet will showcase healthy foods like whole-grain pita and hummus, salads, fresh fruits and veggies, salmon and beneficial fats like olive oil. The panelists concluded that the Mediterranean diet meets the government’s nutrition recommendations and does not compromise safety. True to its Mediterranean roots, the diet encourages a daily glass or two of red wine. “A votre sante!”
What is the role of exercise?
Required – but it doesn’t have to feel like exercise.
Walking, often a central part of a Mediterranean lifestyle, is a good place to start, but add whatever you like into the mix – be it Jazzercise, gardening or Pilates. Do anything you can stick with.
Adults are generally encouraged to get at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity activity each week, along with a couple days of muscle-strengthening activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some tips.