6 Major Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet, centered around fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, is good for everything from your brain to your bones. Learn the benefits of the Mediterranean diet—and how to use it to prevent cognitive decline, heart disease, depression, and even cancer.

The diet focuses on a small group of staple foods, which include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Healthy fats (especially olive oil)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes
  • Unrefined whole grains
  • Fish

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: How It Helps

People who eat a Mediterranean diet tend to experience significant health benefits, ranging from reduced blood sugar to better memory. The following are some of the top health advantages of the Mediterranean diet:

1. Preserve memory and prevent cognitive decline. Full of healthy fats for the brain, the Mediterranean diet can be good for boosting brain power and preventing dementia and cognitive decline.[1] In one study, researchers found that high adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 40 percent reduced risk for cognitive impairment.[2]

2. Reduce your risk for heart disease. Studies show that following a Mediterranean diet can greatly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and stroke.[3]

This is likely due to the Mediterranean diet’s positive effects on cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, triglycerides, and cholesterol.[4–7]

3. Strengthen bones. One study suggests that certain compounds in olive oil may help preserve bone density by increasing the proliferation and maturation of bone cells.[8] Another study found that dietary patterns associated with the Mediterranean diet may help to prevent osteoporosis.[9]

4. Manage diabetes and control blood sugar. The Mediterranean diet has proven beneficial effects for diabetes.[10] It might be able to prevent type 2 diabetes and can help improve blood sugar control and cardiovascular risk in those who already have it.[11]

When the Mediterranean diet was compared to a low-fat diet, people with type 2 diabetes who followed the Mediterranean diet fared much better; fewer people needed treatment, and they experienced greater weight loss and better blood sugar control.12

5. Fight depression. People who follow the Mediterranean diet may be protected against depression, too.[2,13,14] A 2013 study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet most closely had a 98.6 percent lower risk of developing depression than people who followed it the least closely.[13]

6. Protect against cancer. Higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet may help fight off cancer. A systematic review of studies found that overall, people who adhere to the diet the most have a 13 percent lower rate of cancer mortality compared to those who adhere the least.15 Specific cancers protected against include breast cancer, colorectal cancer, gastric cancer, prostate cancer, liver cancer, and head and neck cancer.[15,16]

Mediterranean Diet Tips

On a Mediterranean diet, you should be eating fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil multiple times per day; legumes and unrefined whole grains at least once a day; and fish, nuts, and seeds multiple times per week. Saturated fats and refined sugars should be limited to special occasions only. There are legions of Mediterranean diet recipes on the Internet; here are three—almond meal crusted fish, balsamic-seasoned cauliflower, and sautéed green beans—to help get you started.

january 16 recipe 1

january 16 recipe 2

january 16 recipe 3

1. Ageing Res Rev. 2015 Nov 2. pii: S1568-1637­(15)
2. Ann Neurol. 2013 Oct;74(4):580-91.
3. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2015 Nov 3:0. [Epub ahead of print]
4. Eur J Nutr. 2015 Oct 8. [Epub ahead of print]
5. BMC Med. 2013 Sep 19;11:207.
6. Rev Esp Cardiol (Engl Ed). 2015 Apr;68(4):290-7.
7. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Sep 1;309(5):E440-9.
8. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2014 Nov;65(7):834-40.
9. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2013 Mar;64(2):155-61.
10. BMJ Open. 2015 Aug 10;5(8):e008222.
11. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2010 Aug;89(2):97-102.
12. Ann Intern Med. 2009 Sep 1;151(5):306-14.
13. J Nutr Health Aging. 2013;17(5):441-5.
14. BMC Med. 2013 Sep 20;11:208.
15. Cancer Med. 2015 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of print]
16. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Nov 1;175(11):1752-60.

Originally published in February 2016 and updated.

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