Why are Mediterranean diets so healthy?

The Mediterranean is home to sun, sea and delicious dishes thought to hold the key to good health. But what is it that makes the Mediterranean diet quite so good for us? Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, gives her view on the health benefits of the sunshine cuisine.

Griddled chicken with quinoa Greek salad

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether fat or sugar is the worst offender when it comes to our diets. But by focusing on individual dietary components, it’s easy to miss the bigger picture. While it’s important to understand how different foods and nutrients affect our health, a whole diet approach offers a more helpful way of looking at our eating habits and choices.

What is a Mediterranean diet?

A typical Mediterranean diet includes lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, cereals and cereal products, for example wholegrain bread, pasta and brown rice. It also contains moderate amounts of fish, white meat and some dairy.

It’s the combination of all these elements that seems to bring health benefits, but one of the key aspects is the inclusion of healthy fats. Olive oil, which is a monounsaturated fat, is most commonly associated with the Mediterranean diet, but polyunsaturated fats are also present in nuts, seeds and oily fish.

A serving dish of avocado panzanella

What are the health benefits?

Research into the traditional Mediterranean diet has shown it may reduce our risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are all risk factors for heart disease. Researchers have also found that people who closely follow a Mediterranean diet may live a longer life and be less likely to put on weight.

How does it work?

As research into the benefits of this type of diet is ongoing, there may eventually be certain foods that are found to have greater significance for health. For now, however, it seems it is the overall diet approach and the combination of foods, rather than individual ‘superfoods’ that make this such a healthy way to eat.

This makes sense, as it’s true that if you are eating an unhealthy diet full of processed foods, adding one element such as olive oil is unlikely to have noticeable health benefits if that’s the only change you make. However, if you adjust your whole diet so you eat a little less meat and more fish, opt for healthy fats and eat more fruit and vegetables, then it could make a significant difference.

Sea bream with ripe tomatoes and chilli

Mediterranean recipes

Although we are some way from the warm Mediterranean coast, it’s still possible to adopt this style of eating without making massive changes. Try out our favourite healthy Mediterranean recipes.

Do you have a taste for the Med? If you’ve adopted a whole-diet approach and have found it has worked for you, leave a comment below…

For more information on heart health

Spotlight on… heart disease
The British Heart Foundation

This article was last reviewed on 23 September 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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Mediterranean Nutritionist's picture
Mediterranean N...
23rd Jul, 2019
I have a heart condition and I have been reading about a number of diets to keep myself healthy, especially the Mediterranean Nutritionist. This article was very helpful!
Ofelia Wood's picture
Ofelia Wood
7th Mar, 2019
Great article. Mediterranean Diet is so healthy is as much about lifestyle as it is about dieting, and it can also be used to help better yourself.
Eleni Messiou's picture
Eleni Messiou
23rd Aug, 2018
Great article, however your "healthy Mediterranean recipes" are more like "healthy Italian + Spanish recipes".
5th Oct, 2016
It sounds like it has a number of the elements of the Dr. Joel Fuhrman Diet. Otherwise known has the Nutrarian Diet.
chrisnation's picture
9th Sep, 2015
The Med diet is, in my view, a no-brainer. I have instinctively cooked Med all my life, aided and abetted by lots of time spent in Med countries. One of the best compliments I ever received was by a passing waiter to our Spanish producer, in a restaurant in Barcelona, "Hey! This Inglés is eating like a Spaniard!" We were eating pa amb oli at the time. But the article mentions wholegrain bread, pasta and brown rice. In all my time in Med countries from the Atlantic to the Mid East, I have never been served wholegrain anything. A girlfriend used to use wholegrain pasta and make wholewheat pastry. It was awful. The reason it's vanishingly rare to unknown [in my considerable experience] in Italy is that it is simply too heavy. I've never heard mention of it or seen it used in any of the hundreds of TV chef programmes based on Med food I'm addicted to. In Spanish supermarkets it now possible to get wholewheat bread ["pan natural"]. Usually, this comes in the form of a loaf that in Britain would be used for breakfast toast. The Spanish are slowly coming round to the idea of breakfast, principally for their children, before school. In UK and the US, wholegrain products are elements of a concept called "health food". This was a response to the increasing amount of processed foods filling supermarket shelves. The Med diet is, by and large "health food" by default and for that reason the concept of "health food" barely exists in these countries. It is interesting to note that the movement in Med countries is not towards "health food" - they already have that - but towards - or a return to - "slow food". And here's a question for our dietician. I was once told that the unsaturated fats benefit of olive oil is eliminated by cooking it. Is this true?
jlcross's picture
19th Sep, 2018
Chrisnation, you seem to live in Spain, am I right? Anyway, I live in Italy and I believe extra-virgin olive oil is much better raw and that's how we use it. However, I have heard chefs saying that if you have to fry, use olive oil as well. It has to do with the temperature at which it will fry which I think is lower than some other oils.So, not that it's that good for you but it's better than frying with other oils. Just what I seem to have understood.
9th May, 2017
I concur! I do not think that E.V.O is degraded by heat up to smoke point, I think the effects of E.V.O are down to many factors, including polyphenol antioxidants, protection of P53 gene, which is responsible for cell apoptosis when mutations are detected. On the other hand, I do not believe there is such a thing as a generally unhealthy diet, if that diet is a traditional one. For example, in the mountainous regions of Piedmont, the food is similar to the mountainous regions of Central Europe, where forest fruits, game/meat , mushrooms and herbs are essential and common parts of the diet. It is now largely confirmed by science that the key to it all is the microbiome - if you and your ancestors have spent the last 100 generations eating red meat, then by all means eat red meat: the microflora determine if that red meat consumption will result in artherosclerosis or not.
12th Sep, 2016
chrisnation - I agree with you regarding the meditteranean diet being "health food" and understand what you say about it not being referred to as that in the meditteranean region. It's a shame that we have gone so far away from truly good food, that we have to define what healthy or good food is. In the United States the average American diet is rather sickening and grotesque and has led to obesity and many ill effects. Truly, eating food (what is good food for man) is naturally metabolic-regulating, and weight gain is not a concern, as long as a person eats in moderation and leads a regular active lifestyle. I am wondering what "slow food" is though and I will check back for your response and do some research myself. And I am also interested in what happens when olive oil is heated. They say that honey as well, when it is baked/cooked with, the natural enzymes are killed, but not so with maple syrup. Any thoughts? I'm doing research and experimentation to try and figure this out. I am new to this site and am looking forward to all that I can learn about good food.
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