by Emily Laurence
The ketogenic diet may have been the buzziest eating plan in 2018, but is it the healthiest overall? According to U.S. News and World Report, the tried-and-true Mediterranean diet rises to take the top honor.
A panel of health experts examined and ranked 41 popular eating plans, concluding that the Mediterranean diet is the most universally beneficial for long-term health. Further down the list, U.S. News named the DASH diet as the second healthiest, with WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) as fourth, vegetarian as 11th, vegan as 20th, Paleo as 33rd, and Whole30 and keto tied for 38th.
What makes the Mediterranean diet so beloved by MDs and nutrition experts? Registered dietitian Lauren Slayton, RD, points to the fact that it emphasizes the consumption of foods high in omega-3s and healthy fats, like fish, olive oil, nuts, grains, legumes, fruits, and veggies. “[Olive oil] has tremendous cardiovascular benefits,” she says. Meanwhile, you’re eating a lot less red meat—although it’s still permitted on occasion. It’s generally pretty easy for people to follow, Slayton says (and allows for small amounts of red wine).
“Diet trends come and go, but the Mediterranean diet’s encouragement of eating a variety of foods in moderation is pretty aligned with the advice I like to give my clients.” —Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD
“The Mediterranean diet isn’t a specific set of rules and restrictions, making it way easier to adopt than other trendy eating plans,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, in the latest episode of Well+Good’s video series You vs Food. To crib from Gilmore Girls, it’s not a “diet”—it’s a lifestyle. The emphasis of the eating plan is on real food, sustainability, and longevity—without a specific focus on losing weight, she says.
“If you look at the Mediterranean diet pyramid, what’s at the base is actually physical activity and social relationships,” adds adds Marisa Moore, RDN. So movement and friendship definitely play a part, too. What’s not to like here?
Wondering what exactly it looks like to follow this tried-and-true eating plan, and what the Mediterranean diet benefits are? Keep reading for everything you need to know.
The biggest benefit of the Mediterranean diet (besides, you know, wine) is that it’s well-studied—making its buzzed-about benefits truly legit. “The Mediterranean diet has been around for a very, very long time and is one of the eating plans that’s been studied the most,” says Moore. “When the PREDIMED study came out in 2013, it really showed the long-term benefits, and that caused it to really start surging in popularity.” The Cliff Notes version: The study followed 7447 people and found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet had significantly fewer cardiovascular problems than those who didn’t.
Here are eight other major Mediterranean diet benefits that make it well worth trying:
1. It’s good for your heart.
“This is perhaps the biggest known benefit,” Moore says. “The Mediterranean diet has been linked to decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, and early death, all associated with better heart health.” That’s because the diet is high in heart-healthy omega-3s thanks to the seafood, nuts, and olive oil, as well as antioxidants from all those fruits and veggies).
2. It boosts brain health.
All those healthy fats are good for your brain, too. One study with 1,864 participants found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to get Alzheimer’s or experience other types of cognitive decline in old age. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between fish consumption and lowered risk of Alzheimer’s.
3. It can help with depression and anxiety.
There’s a reason why psychiatrist and Well+Good Wellness Council member Drew Ramsey, MD makes a diet rich in vegetables and healthy fats part of his treatment for patients with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues: The carotenoids in kale, spinach, and eggs has been shown to boost the good bacteria in your gut, and in turn, your mood. One study found that when older adults followed the Mediterranean diet, they were less likely to experience depression.
4. It can help stabilize blood sugar.
Unlike other popular eating plans, the Mediterranean diet is big on whole grains and other healthy carbs—and that comes with big benefits. “Consuming complex whole grain carbohydrates, like buckwheat, wheatberries, and quinoa, instead of refined carbohydrates, helps keeps your blood sugar levels even and helps with your all-around energy,” says Beckerman.
5. It’s linked to reducing the risk of cancer.
When researchers looked at a combined 27 studies—taking into account over 2 million people—they found that the Med diet is the eating plan best linked to reduced risk of cancer morality, particularly colon cancer, breast cancer, and gastric cancer.
6. It promotes healthy weight management.
“Because of all the fiber, the Mediterranean diet is helpful in managing fullness,” Moore says. “You feel more satiated with foods higher in fiber, which helps with healthy weight loss and metabolism.” The key: Replacing simple carbohydrates with fibrous fruits, vegetables, legumes, and beans.
7. It has special benefits for post-menopausal women.
Get this: The Mediterranean diet has even been linked to positively impacting bone and muscle mass in post-menopausal women. This was a small study, so more research is needed, but it’s promising given that previous studies have found menopause can reduce women’s bone and muscle mass.
8. It’s good for your gut.
One study found that people who follow the Mediterranean diet had a higher population of good bacteria in their microbiome, compared to those who ate a traditional Western diet. Researchers noted an increase in eating plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, and legumes upped the good bacteria by 7 percent—not too shabby.
9. It’s linked to living longer.
As if all the above benefits aren’t enough, it’s also linked to living a longer life—primarily because of the aforementioned improved heart health. There’s a reason why so many of those “blue zones” are in the Mediterranean!
Risks and potential obstacles
“You know, I don’t think there are any caveats to the Mediterranean diet,” says Beckerman, citing its many proven benefits and its easy-to-follow regimen. Moore agrees, but says people new to the diet should be mindful of mercury since they’re likely increasing their seafood consumption. She recommends varying seafood sources and choosing low-mercury options such as shrimp, tuna, salmon, and catfish over swordfish and mackerel.
“I also often see clients trying to make following the diet more difficult than it has to be,” Moore says. But she stresses that you don’t need to do a ton of research to get started, or feel like you have to buy a ton of new cookbooks (although you certainly can, if you need inspiration). “The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that it’s simple and doesn’t require a lot of speciality ingredients.” Remember, the Mediterranean region isn’t just Greece; you can use flavors from France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, too. “Because of the inclusion of all these countries, there’s a lot of different ways the dishes can be prepared, varying them with different spices,” she says.
And if you’re not really that confident in the kitchen, you can still make the Med diet work for you. “A common pitfall to eating healthy is feeling like you don’t have time to make those fresh, unprocessed meals,” says Beckerman. But she says that ready-made options are better than ever, and suggests shopping in the frozen section for cauliflower rice, quinoa, salmon, and other staples to make life a little easier. Or buy prepackaged veggies that you can steam in the microwave, and add a little olive oil, lemon, and dried herbs to give them a Mediterranean diet twist.
Yet as the world recognizes the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, eating habits within the region from which it hails have shifted. Children in Greece, Italy, and Spain are less healthy than ever, with an obesity rate of more than 40 percent, according to the World Health Organization, in part because they’re eating more processed foods and drinking more soda than previous generations. (Sound familiar?) To fix it, experts say, Mediterranean countries need only to get back to their roots.
This article was originally published on January 2, 2019. It was updated on April 4, 2019.