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The Mediterranean Diet: The Best Overall Diet of 2021

Under: Food & Diet

The U.S News World & Report named the Mediterranean diet the best overall diet for the fourth time in a row. Find out why.

The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan based on traditional foods from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Spain, and Italy. Like the ancient civilizations that first consumed it, the origins of the Mediterranean diet are lost in time. However, following the development of the modern concept of the Mediterranean diet in the early 1960s, a considerable – and compelling – amount of research has continuously backed its health benefits.

What is the Mediterranean diet, exactly?

Almost anyone with a passing interest in healthy eating – or anyone with a chronic disease – has surely heard about the Mediterranean diet, an eating style that focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. But the Mediterranean diet is so much more than that.

Unlike restrictive, calorie-centered diets that focus on the foods you should avoid, the Mediterranean diet is about the foods you should eat. In that sense, it doesn’t fall into the “diet” category because its end goal is not to lose weight.

Instead, it involves plenty of fresh vegetables like tomatoes, broccoli, kale, and cucumbers, among others, always emphasizing color and variety. Because of its origins near the Mediterranean Sea, seafood, especially fatty fish like sardines and salmon, make up an important portion of the diet’s protein intake. Whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, oats, should be consumed daily, in moderation. Red meats should be eaten only rarely, and highly processed foods should be avoided.

Like other diets, the Mediterranean diet has its own modified food pyramid developed by the Oldways Preservation Trust, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Harvard University in 1993. The pyramid doesn’t list specific serving sizes; instead, it suggests the types and frequency of foods to be consumed daily. Another interesting feature of the Mediterranean diet is that it places daily exercise and social interactions at the broadest row, or the pyramid’s base.

Mediterranean diet pyramid

Lifestyle is important, too

One of the reasons the Mediterranean diet became so famous outside Europe was that people who live in the Mediterranean live longer, healthier lives than those in many other countries. Researchers theorized that their eating habits could be behind that longevity. And they were right; study after study confirms the impressive health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. But there is another important factor behind the region’s good health: lifestyle.

In a Pew Research Center survey, 84 percent of U.S parents reported eating dinner with their children at least once a week, and only 50 percent of those parents said it happened every night. But in Europe, where the Mediterranean diet is a not diet but a daily practice, people regard meals as social occasions. Cooking and eating together, sharing food, and spending quality time around the table are paramount. So is eating slowly, savoring every bit of food, moving often, and enjoying a glass of wine with friends and loved ones to cultivate stronger bonds.

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most recommended eating plans by healthcare professionals. It’s also recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural asset and recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to prevent chronic disease. Some science-backed health benefits of the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • May reduce the risk for heart disease
  • May help lose weight and maintaining it
  • May protect against type 2 diabetes
  • May help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer
  • May help delay cognitive decline

Eating the Mediterranean way

Traditional diets around the Mediterranean Sea differ slightly from region to region, so there isn’t a concrete eating plan to follow. Instead, focus on fresh, mostly-plant based, nutrient-rich foods, like:

Vegetables, with every meal: mainly non-starchy vegetables such as bell peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, artichokes, and dark leafy greens.

Animal protein, occasionally: fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna. Seafood, chicken, turkey, eggs.

Fruits, daily: all fresh fruits. Avoid fruit juice and concentrates.

Nuts and seeds, daily: almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds.

Whole grains, moderately: whole grain bread, corn, bulgur wheat, farro, quinoa, oatmeal, polenta, couscous.

Dairy, moderately: cheese, Greek yogurt.

Herbs and spices, daily: garlic, basil, mint, cinnamon, paprika.