What is the Mediterranean diet? A physician responds.
Introduced initially outside of the Mediterranean in the 1960s as a diet to lose weight, the Mediterranean diet draws its inspiration from the unique food cultures of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Greece, and Italy. Today, the Mediterranean diet boasts that it improves heart health and cholesterol—but are there actual benefits to this diet? Should everyone consider taking it up?
Most of this discussion resides in the fact that while heart disease is a leading cause of mortality in the U.S., the people of the Mediterranean had an exceptionally low risk of chronic medical conditions in comparison. We reached out to Dr. Chaitanya Koneru, a primary care physician with Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group, to weigh in on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and how it works.
What are the main health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
The health benefits of this diet have long been stated, but most diets claim some kind of betterment to your health. However, according to Dr. Koneru, there are legitimate health benefits to the low-fat, high protein nature of the Mediterranean diet.
Because the only fatty foods in this diet are healthy fats, such as olive oil, there is typically a far lower incidence of heart disease. This kind of diet has also been shown in recent studies to lower LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and diastolic—when your heart relaxes and fills with blood—and systolic—when your heart beats and the blood is released into your arteries—blood pressure. Overall, there are many proven heart health benefits to this diet.
“One study compared the Mediterranean diet to a low-fat diet and reported that the Mediterranean diet was more effective at slowing the progression of plaque buildup in the arteries, which is a major risk factor for heart disease.”
In addition to improving heart health, this low-fat, nutrient-rich diet can also support healthy blood sugar levels, reducing the risk for hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. Some studies even suggest that this diet, without calorie restriction, has the potential to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes in some cases.
“Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet helps stabilize blood sugar levels and protects against diabetes. It is known to reduce fasting blood sugar levels, improve levels of A1C, a marker used to measure long-term sugar control, and is shown to decrease insulin resistance.”
Like other diets that focus on healthy fats and fish consumption, the Mediterranean diet can help better your cognitive health and reduce your risk for cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as you grow older. The omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish, are essential to your body and can only come from the food that we eat—as our bodies don’t naturally produce them.
“According to a study performed at the Mayo Clinic, this diet is associated with reduced risk of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. The studies were linked to improvements in cognitive function, memory, attention, and processing speed in healthy older adults.”
Who should adopt a Mediterranean diet?
While anyone can reap the benefits of this diet—the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cognitive disorders developed later in life, and high blood sugar—the people who most need to eat this diet are those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and/or Metabolic Syndrome—which includes patients who have a combination of the aforementioned conditions.
Dr. Koneru advises that anyone should try it if they are “looking to improve their health and protect against chronic diseases.”
What makes a Mediterranean diet special compared to other diets?
“It is not primarily a weight loss diet, but it is a healthy diet that prevents heart disease and early death.”
While most diets prioritize the weight loss aspect, the Mediterranean diet instead focuses on creating a healthy balance of fats, proteins, and fiber consumption. By emphasizing fresh produce and meats like fish and poultry, people are shifted away from buying processed foods that are unhealthier and higher in sugars and bad fats.
What kind of foods can’t you eat on a Mediterranean diet?
When starting a diet, one of the most daunting aspects is having to cut out foods and food groups that you enjoy. As the Mediterranean diet pulls from a variety of food cultures around the Mediterranean Sea, there is a wide variety of recipes and snacks you can eat. The Mediterranean Food Pyramid differs from the one you are probably familiar with from elementary school in its prioritization of healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, and seafood over refined grains and other high-calorie food items.
According to Dr. Koneru, the Mediterranean diet consists mainly of:
Healthy fats, like olive oil and nuts, should be used instead of vegetable oil and butter.
Grilled fish should be incorporated into your meals at least twice a week. Either canned or fresh fish are acceptable. Fried fish should be avoided.
Water should be the go-to beverage.
Coffee and tea are acceptable, as long as there aren’t a lot of added sugars or creams.
One glass of red wine is optional each day.
These food groups contain a lot of the foods that you are likely used to eating, but they can be prepared in new ways that will prioritize fresh, healthy ingredients and less harmful fats. The more comfortable you become with preparing these foods, the more you can start to move other foods into moderation, like:
- Yogurt (plain Greek yogurt)
According to Dr. Koneru, these foods must be reduced, so they are either rare or completely eliminated from your diet.
- Processed red meats - Hot dogs, bacon, lunch meats, and sausages are a few examples.
- Heavily processed foods - Frozen meals that are made with a lot of sodium or processed cheeses.
- Refined grains - White rice, white bread, white pasta, and products made with white flour.
- Sugary drinks
- Refined, processed, or hydrogenated oils - Soybean, safflower, corn, vegetable, and canola oils.
Is a Mediterranean diet physician recommended?
The Mediterranean diet is a well-researched, nutritious diet. Multiple peer-reviewed and evidence-based studies have looked into its impact on cardiovascular, cognitive, and endocrine health. Its relatively low basis in animal products and red meats means that it’s particularly rich in healthy plant-based foods.
“Diets have adopted an increasingly important role in the medical field, a role that needs to be monitored during all stages of life. The amount of health benefits that can be gained by switching to a Mediterranean diet, as well as the many diseases that can be prevented because of the switch, causes many physicians, such as myself, to accept the diet.”
If you are looking to reduce your risk of chronic conditions or if you have a chronic cardiovascular, cognitive, or metabolic condition, talk to one of our Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group physicians, like Dr. Koneru, about a management plan.