Over the years of research and ranking of diets, it has been found that a diet brings many health benefits, and it has not fallen out of favor amidst changing fads.
The Mediterranean diet has once again topped the list in US News & World Reports’ 2024 annual rankings – for the seventh time in a row – earning it a new wave of media attention.
The diet is plant-based and emphasizes several daily servings of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and seafood.
Red meats are only eaten occasionally, while dairy products and poultry are also eaten in moderation. Highly processed foods or those with added sugars are generally avoided.
Researchers and dietitians say that following a diet long-term can increase the chances of living a longer, healthier life. Many studies suggest it reduces the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, while potentially slowing cognitive decline.
“It’s a way of life, it’s a cuisine, it goes back thousands of years, and over the last five to six decades it’s the most studied cuisine in the world,” said Catherine Itsiopoulos , professor of nutrition and dietetics at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who has published several books on the Mediterranean diet.
Here’s what sets the Mediterranean diet apart.
Diet reduces risk of heart disease
The bulk of evidence focuses on the link between the Mediterranean diet and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and related conditions such as obesity, high cholesterol and hypertension.
According to a 2021 research review, the diet was shown to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in women by 29% and stroke by 13%. Meanwhile, a 2017 analysis found it could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke by an average of 40%.
This may be because the fats in olive oil, seeds, fish and nuts are healthy: monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. On the other hand, red meat, cheese, dairy, and highly processed foods like cookies or chips are full of unhealthy fats that can clog the arteries with plaque.
These fatty foods can also cause chronic, low-grade inflammation, which occurs when certain types of immune system cells remain present for too long, according to Dr. Selvi Rajagopal, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. . These active cells can attack and damage healthy organs and tissues.
“It affects how people’s bodies create cholesterol and how they are able to regulate blood sugar and form plaque,” Rajagopal said.
Some studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet helps fight chronic inflammation because of its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which contain antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
Regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil may also help reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure, according to a research review published in June. But that alone is not enough.
“If someone eats at McDonald’s and drinks a lot of soda, but they use olive oil, I don’t think you’re going to get the same benefit as someone who really adopted the overall diet ” said Kelly LeBlanc. registered dietitian and vice president of nutrition programs at Oldways, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable eating. “There is no one silver bullet or one food villain.”
Lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Research has long linked excessive sugar consumption to a risk of type 2 diabetes. Since the Mediterranean diet relies on honey and cinnamon as sweeteners and the main source of sugar is fruit, it is associated with increased sugar intake. reduced risk of disease.
An April study, comparing blood samples from more than 300,000 participants, found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet had a nearly 30% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
The effect can also be influenced by the consumption of vegetable fats from nuts, olive oil and avocados, which can improve insulin sensitivity.
Good for your gut
Fibrous staples of the Mediterranean diet, such as beans, lentils, apples, and brown rice, are also associated with more regular bowel movements and lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. , according to the Food and Drug Administration.
These foods affect the health of the gut microbiome – the ecosystem of bacteria in our digestive system that helps break down food and extract nutrients. The microbiome also helps defend the body against pathogens.
“The good bacteria in our gut feed on these good fibers, which allows them to proliferate,” Rajagopal said.
This creates a strong lining in the intestines, she added: “The more we have, it’s like protection.” It’s like a separate army against disease.
The benefits of the Mediterranean diet go even further
Adhering to the Mediterranean diet may also reduce the risk of death from cancer, in addition to reducing the risks of several specific types – including breast, colorectal, head, neck and lung cancers – according to a research review carried out in 2020.
Then there are the diet’s benefits for the mind: A March study found that adhering to a Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of dementia in older adults by almost 25%. According to the National Institute on Aging, diet is associated with fewer signs of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.
More research is needed to understand this link, but one hypothesis is that antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may prevent damage to brain cells, according to a 2019 study.
Despite the countless benefits of the Mediterranean diet, it does have one drawback: It won’t necessarily help you lose weight quickly, because foods like olive oil and nuts are high in fat and calories. Losing weight through diet requires regular physical activity and careful attention to portion size.
“If you’re 50 pounds overweight, the Mediterranean diet alone won’t make you lose all those extra pounds,” said Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public. Health.
That being said, the variety of the diet can make it more enjoyable to follow than restrictive weight loss diets, Willett added.
Additionally, he added, when the Mediterranean is combined with regular physical activity, any weight loss is more likely to be maintained.