The foods you eat have a profound impact on your energy, cellular function, and overall health. While nutrition fads come and go, certain ways of eating stand the test of time.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole, nutrient-dense foods inspired by the traditional diets of people living around the Mediterranean Sea. It incorporates fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables, unprocessed whole grains, and heart-healthy fats like olive oil. There is a wealth of ancient wisdom in this way of eating, which reflects nature and balance.
The Mediterranean diet goes beyond food, embracing a healthy, balanced lifestyle. This way of living has been scientifically proven to produce long-term health benefits. Eating a balanced, nutrient-dense Mediterranean diet can strengthen the immune system, benefit the heart and brain, balance blood sugar, weight, and mood, and improve energy.
Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a plane ticket to benefit from this eating and lifestyle philosophy. You can incorporate many aspects of the Mediterranean diet into your life through simple lifestyle choices and delicious whole-food-focused meals.
What is The Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean way of life and eating is well-known for its health benefits. This way of eating is broadly based on the traditional diet of people living in the countries along the Mediterranean Sea, including regions of France, Spain, Greece, and Italy.
Instead of strictly limiting certain types or groups of foods, the Mediterranean diet involves a healthy pattern of eating seasonal, whole foods easily grown in the local climate. It focuses on real foods that are not processed or refined, healthy fats that fight inflammation, and fresh produce.
A typical Mediterranean way of eating incorporates plenty of
- antioxidant-rich fresh fruits and vegetables
- a variety of flavorful herbs
- legumes and beans
- minimally-processed whole grains
- healthy fats like those found in olive oil, fatty fish like sardines, and nuts and seeds
Beyond the food on your plate, the Mediterranean diet embraces an overall way of living. This includes regular physical activity incorporated into your day, meaningful connections and sharing meals with others, stress reduction, and social relationships.
Why is the Mediterranean Diet So Popular?
The Mediterranean diet first became popular when researchers noted that people living in areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea had lower risks of many chronic conditions such as heart disease and cognitive decline. Since this way of eating balances inflammation and promotes gut health, it has wide-reaching benefits throughout the body.
Nutrient-dense, fresh, and full of flavor, the Mediterranean diet is a treat for the taste buds. It is one of the most popular ways of eating for health since it is rich in flavorful easy-to-obtain foods, flexible to follow, and well-studied for its health benefits.
What Can You Eat on The Mediterranean Diet?
Mediterranean diet-inspired meals are generally centered around fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, and legumes with plenty of healthy fats like olive oil and aromatic herbs to add flavor and antioxidants. They focus primarily on plant foods but allow for individualization to incorporate pasture-raised poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, and red wine in moderation.
Overall, the foods included within a Mediterranean diet work synergistically to help keep inflammation and blood sugar balanced in the body, support a healthy microbiome of bacteria in the gut and provide a wide range of nutrients to allow the body to work at its best.
For example, high-quality extra virgin olive oil is a key staple in the traditional Mediterranean diet and is responsible for many of the anti-inflammatory benefits of this way of eating. High-quality extra virgin olive oil adds intense flavor and nutrition to finish off dishes like salads and veggies and may also be used for cooking. Research shows that when veggies like garlic, onion, and tomato are cooked in extra-virgin olive oil, bioactive compounds in the oil, including carotenoids and polyphenols, are more readily available for the body to absorb and use, showing the powerful synergy in the Mediterranean way of eating.
Foods to Enjoy
- a variety of fresh organically-grown vegetables like broccoli, kale, spinach, fennel, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, and more
- a variety of organically-grown fresh and dried fruits without additives, like figs, grapes, citrus fruits, melons, peaches, pomegranates, berries, and apples
- unsalted and unflavored nuts and seeds
- extra-virgin olive oil
- a variety of natural herbs and spices like rosemary, garlic, basil, mint, thyme, sage, oregano, capers, and more
- beans, pulses, and legumes
- a variety of unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains
- fatty fish, seafood, and fish oils
- moderate amounts of pasture-raised poultry and eggs
- small amounts of honey
- unprocessed or minimally processed organic cheese and yogurt
Foods to Avoid
- processed foods
- added sugars
- artificial sweeteners
- sugar-sweetened beverages
- refined grains
- factory farm-raised meats and dairy products
- processed meats
- trans-fats such as those found in margarine, fried foods, and commercial bakery products
- refined seed oils like soybean, canola, cottonseed, rapeseed, and sunflower
Research Backing The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is rich in minimally-processed whole foods and has been associated with a lower risk of developing many chronic diseases and increased life expectancy. Some of the most commonly-cited health benefits of a Mediterranean way of eating and living include:
- improved heart health
- reduced risk of stroke
- balanced weight and metabolism
- preserved memory and brain function
- a more balanced mood
Many studies show heart health benefits from a Mediterranean lifestyle and diet. Research suggests that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduces the incidence of major cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes in those at high risk of cardiovascular disease. This may be due in part to the ability of the Mediterranean diet to help lower blood pressure and slow the progression of plaque buildup in the arteries, which are major risk factors for heart disease.
The Mediterranean diet also benefits the brain and may help preserve memory and brain function with aging. This way of eating is associated with improved cognitive function, memory, attention, and processing speed in healthy older adults and a lower risk of dementia, cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Healthy Blood Sugar Balance and Diabetes
A Mediterranean diet, emphasizing vegetables, legumes, citrus fruits, and complex carbohydrates with moderate amounts of fish and olive oil, helps improve blood sugar, insulin, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). A Mediterranean diet eliminates processed foods, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates, which helps the body improve the handling of sugars to keep blood sugar levels balanced. In addition, this anti-inflammatory way of eating helps to keep the gut healthy and the microbiome balanced, which plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar and preventing diabetes.
Since the Mediterranean diet encourages eating a variety of nutrient-rich plant-based foods and limits processed foods and added sugars, it can naturally help to promote a balanced weight. Research suggests that following the Mediterranean diet over five years decreases the risk of gaining weight and belly fat.
Functional Medicine Labs to Consider When Swapping to a Mediterranean Diet
Several functional medicine laboratory tests can help you evaluate if the Mediterranean diet is right for you and how it impacts your health.
Comprehensive Stool Test
The composition of the diet strongly influences the gut microbiome and metabolism. Compared to a conventional “Western” diet, the Mediterranean diet includes a high proportion of fibers, mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, and polyphenols which have been shown to modulate the gut microbiome in beneficial ways. This can improve dysbiosis or imbalances in gut bacteria that are associated with a wide range of chronic diseases, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes, cognitive decline, and cardiovascular diseases.
A comprehensive stool test reflects the overall health and balance of the digestive tract by measuring a variety of bacteria, parasites, viruses, fungi/yeast, antibiotic resistance genes, and intestinal health markers. It can also help you understand how well you can break down and digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates before or during dietary adjustments like following a Mediterranean diet. Understanding the state of your digestive tract and microbiome can guide your practitioner toward an individualized approach to nutrition based on your unique needs.
For example, if your microbiome is imbalanced and low in certain beneficial bacteria, targeted probiotics or dietary approaches may help to bring things back into balance. Similarly, if you are not breaking down nutrients like fats or proteins well, your practitioner may guide you through adding digestive enzymes or taking other steps to improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients. You can monitor your progress by repeating the testing over time as you shift your diet, supplements, and lifestyle.
Micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are needed for your body to function well. Diets that focus heavily on processed foods or restrict certain types of foods can result in imbalanced nutrient levels in the body.
Micronutrient testing can help your practitioner evaluate any nutritional deficiencies or abnormalities to establish a personalized dietary plan for you. As you make healthy changes, such as following a Mediterranean diet, retesting micronutrients every few months can help to confirm that nutrients are being absorbed and target any essential nutrients that may need to be supplemented.
Since each individual has unique genetics and dietary needs, it can be helpful to look at your genetic profile when evaluating and implementing different nutritional approaches like the Mediterranean diet.
The DNA Diet test is a genetic test that provides insight into which diet type (low carbohydrate, low fat, or Mediterranean diet) would be most suitable for you according to your unique genetic makeup. Results from this test can help you, and your practitioner determine if the Mediterranean diet would be appropriate for your needs and to modify this dietary approach as needed for the best results.
Another way to customize your optimal individualized diet is to use the NutriPro test that measures genetic predispositions (single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) that affect each nutrient alongside specific nutrient levels in your blood cells. This test allows you to see your current micronutrient status and genetics in one panel, highlighting nutrients that you may need in an increased or decreased quantity.
There are many dietary approaches out there, but the Mediterranean diet has stood the test of time as it reflects the traditional wisdom of cultures living along the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean diet provides a nutrient-rich, delicious way of eating that focuses on anti-inflammatory plant-based foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, along with plenty of fresh herbs and healthy fats from olive oil and fish. It is associated with numerous health benefits and may help balance the gut microbiome, stabilize blood sugar levels, promote heart health, and preserve brain function.
While the Mediterranean diet focuses on whole, unprocessed plant-based foods and avoids processed foods, refined sugars, and grains, you can adapt the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle principles to meet your individual needs and preferences. Genetic testing and evaluating your current micronutrient levels and gut health can allow you to adapt the Mediterranean way of eating to work best for you. This can enable you to reap the health benefits of this anti-inflammatory way of eating as you build delicious, Mediterranean-inspired meals with foods that are accessible to you and that you love!