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The Mediterranean Diet is not a fad diet—in fact, it’s not a “diet” at all. Rather, it’s a lifestyle and eating pattern that continues to demonstrate positive, whole-body health effects—including a proven ability to the risk of heart disease by 30%.
This eating pattern places emphasis on whole foods over ultra-processed products that make up the Standard American Diet (SAD). “Ultra-processed” means either creating food-like products from manufactured ingredients or extracting certain parts of fruits, vegetables, and proteins until the original whole food is no longer nutritious—like breakfast cereals and fruit snacks “made from real fruit.”
A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that the risk of cardiovascular disease rises as much as 9% with each daily serving of ultra-processed foods—SAD, indeed!
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on whole foods that provide the nutrition the body needs. Whole foods are minimally processed, if at all, meaning their original form hasn’t been altered. Fruits and vegetables are whole foods. So are whole-grain breads, lean meats, and legumes—beans, peas, and lentils. In most stores, they’re found in the produce section, butcher’s counter, and bulk food bins.
Many people think following the Mediterranean Diet might be difficult. But for many patients, it’s easier than it seems. I follow it 95% of the time, but you can bet I enjoy the occasional croissant or sweet treat! This eating pattern is less about excluding certain foods and more about practicing moderation for whole-body health.
Understanding why and how whole foods protect your health is a good first step to shutting down SAD and going Mediterranean.
Research-proven benefits of whole foods.
One of the things I like best about the Mediterranean Diet is that it’s backed up by a lot of scientific research. Among the most influential studies of diet and heart disease is PREDIMED, a large, randomized clinical trial that involved nearly 7,500 patients at high risk of heart disease.
Over five years, participants ate one of three eating patterns:
- Mediterranean Diet with extra-virgin olive oil
- Mediterranean Diet with mixed nuts
- Low-fat diet
At the end of the study, the results were clear: participants who followed the Mediterranean Diet were 30% less likely to develop heart disease than those who did not.
Researchers have since redesigned and run similar clinical trials, coming to the same conclusion. A 2018 review of research on the Mediterranean Diet called it “the gold standard in preventive medicine,” and I couldn’t agree more. This eating pattern protects heart and whole-body health in so many ways:
- Lowers cholesterol: Having high cholesterol is a prime risk factor for heart disease, including heart attack and stroke. The healthy fats in Mediterranean Diet foods Help bring total cholesterol numbers down and “good” HDL cholesterol levels up.
- Lowers blood clot risks: Fatty fish are full of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of healthy fat that reduces blood clots that could lead to stroke or heart attack.
- Reduces inflammation: Inflammation is a type of cell damage that is linked to a variety of conditions, including diabetes, obesity, and several types of cancer. Mediterranean Diet foods are rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that help reduce and prevent inflammation.
- Relaxes the blood vessels: Keeping the vessels free of clots and inflammation allows enough oxygenated blood to reach the brain and other organs.
New research about whole-body benefits of the Mediterranean Diet is being published all the time. A recent study shows a 23% lower risk of developing dementia from eating this way, even among people with a family history.
The evidence on ultra-processed foods is in, too. Study after study has found out that a diet high in low-nutrient foods is part of why we see growing numbers of conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and ovarian and breast cancer. The ingredients in ultra-processed foods do not give the body what it needs to heal and protect itself from cellular changes that lead to chronic illness.
Building healthy eating habits can be challenging at first, especially if you’ve gotten used to the convenience and cost of ultra-processed foods. But the benefits of switching to a whole-food diet are substantial—and can save you money and stress in the long run.
The first step is to identify which foods are ultra-processed and which are whole based on their ingredients.
Related reading: 6 Leading Heart Disease Risks and How to Control Them.
Which foods are processed vs. whole?
Just because a food is low in calories or marketed as a healthy option doesn’t mean it’s giving you nutrition. Breakfast cereals, protein powders, gummy fruit snacks, veggie chips—most variations of these products are ultra-processed.
Whole foods usually have fewer ingredients. If there are ingredients on the nutrition label that you can’t pronounce, it’s a sure sign of processing, which removes many of the nutrients found in whole foods. Even products labeled “made with real fruit” can be full of chemicals, preservatives, and manufactured ingredients.
Nutrition experts classify foods according to how much they are processed. These categories include:
- Unprocessed, minimally processed, or whole: Fresh, dry, or frozen plant and animal foods.
- Processed culinary ingredients: These include table sugar, oils, fats, and other kitchen ingredients.
- Processed foods: Canned fish, canned vegetables, and many cheeses.
- Ultra-processed foods: Food-like products made with additives such as flavorings or preservatives. They usually don’t look like their original ingredients.
- Olive oil: 28 tablespoons a week, including what’s used for cooking (4 T per day)
- Tree nuts and peanuts: 3 servings a week
- Fresh fruit: 21 servings a week (3 per day)
- Vegetables: 14 servings a week (2 per day)
- Fish and seafood: 3 servings a week
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.): 3 servings a week
- Lean, white meat: 1 serving a week
- Wine with meals: Optional, up to 1 glass a day
While nothing is off limits, enjoy these items once in a while, if at all:
- Commercial baked goods, sweets, pastries: 2 servings or less a week
- Spreadable fats (like butter and margarine): 7 servings or less a week
- Red meat and processed meat: 1 serving or less a week
The Mediterranean Diet suggests a few servings per week of cheese or yogurt, preferring less-processed cheeses like parmesan, feta, or part-skim mozzarella. Breads made from whole grains or sourdough are recommended, though ultra-processed choices like white bread are best avoided.
Eating healthier on a budget.
It’s true that eating fresh, unprocessed food can cost a little more than the unhealthy stuff. When you’re shopping on a budget, consider these ways to boost your health without breaking the bank:
- Canned fish: Anchovies, sardines, and tuna canned in water are wallet-friendly ways to get the protein, vitamins, and nutrients found in seafood.
- Spinach: This versatile vegetable is packed with calcium, vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber.
- Beans: This affordable superfood is a staple of the Mediterranean Diet, and you can get the benefits whether canned or dried. Try substituting beans for red meat in tacos or pasta sauce.
- Oats: One of the most economical and convenient grains, oats are nutrient-rich whole grain that can help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Avoid pre-flavored oatmeal products that are processed with lots of sugars.
- Garlic: This powerful anti-inflammatory is delicious in almost every dish, and if you haven’t tried roasted garlic you’re really missing out.
- Frozen fruit and vegetables: Buy what’s local, in season, and affordable when you can, and save money with frozen choices year-round. Frozen fruit can be a sweet and healthy dessert option instead of processed treats like ice cream.
The Mediterranean Diet is all about moderation. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods—just enjoy them less frequently and fill your plate with whole food options. Less restrictions can make it easier to follow this eating plan long term and reap its proven health benefits.
If you’re ready to give the Mediterranean Diet a try, talk with your doctor. We can help you make a plan to prioritize foods that make you healthier and keep your heart strong.