Mediterranean Diet Health Benefits

What is the Mediterranean Diet? Can it reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer? Can it help manage Type 2 Diabetes? Might it reduce the risk of getting Parkinson's or Alzheimer's?

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean Diet describes a combination of foods traditionally eaten in countries around the Mediterranean. These are typically high in plant based ingredients, including using olive oil as the main source of fat, and low in red and processed meat - with low to moderate consumption of fish, poultry, dairy products and wine with meals. 

In practice, the actual ingredients and the quantities and proportions can vary from country to country. This is one of the challenges for researchers, as it makes it difficult to make an exact like for like comparison. Another challenge is how to ensure that it is the Mediterranean Diet, rather than other factors, which is making the difference. This helps explain why different researchers sometimes report different results.   

Can it reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease?

Research suggests direct protection against cardiovascular disease, at least where the Mediterranean Diet is supplemented by extra virgin olive oil or nuts. One trial, in Spain, involved 7,447 people aged 55 - 80 and the findings were published in 2013. The trial found, ‘Among persons at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events.’ This meant fewer heart attacks and strokes and fewer deaths from heart attacks and strokes.

Meanwhile a study of 23,902 people in East Anglia in the UK reported that the more people followed a Mediterranean Diet the lower the rate of cardiovascular disease and death appeared to be. 

Can a Mediterranean Diet reduce the risk of Obesity?

An analysis of published research in 2015 concluded that the Mediterranean Diet appeared to be effective in reducing obesity - and that the effects were greater the longer the Mediterranean Diet was followed. A 2016 review considered trials which compared the effectiveness of the Mediterranean Diet with a low fat diet, a low carbohydrate diet and the American Diabetes Association diet. It found that the Mediterranean Diet appeared to produce greater weight loss than a low fat diet and similar weight loss to the other two diets. 

One possible explanation for these findings is that a large amount of dietary fibre is found in the plant foods that make up a large part of the Mediterranean Diet. This makes us feel full and tehrefore stops us eating more.

Can it help manage Type 2 Diabetes?

If you have Type 2 Diabetes you are up to five times more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke, so it is important to manage your diabetes to reduce the risk.

The evidence for the effectiveness of the Mediterranean Diet in managing type 2 diabetes was explored in reviews of the evidence in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The 2014 analysis concluded that following a Mediterranean Diet more fully was associated with a 23% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A 2015 review in BMJ Open concluded the evidence suggested a Mediterranean Diet is suitable for the overall management of type 2 diabetes. And a 2016 review noted that the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Assocation both recommend the Mediterranean Diet for reducing risks associated with type 2 diabetes. 

Can a Mediterranean Diet slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s?

A systematic review of twelve (mainly observational) studies published in 2013 found, ‘ Higher adherence to Mediterranean diet was associated with better cognitive function, lower rates of cognitive decline, and reduced risk of Alzheimer disease in nine out of 12 studies.’  

Similarly, a review of published studies in 2015 found that a majority of studies suggested that following a Mediterranean Diet is associated with less cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer's - but that a significant minority of studies didn't suggest this, indicating that more research and more conclusive evidence is needed.   

So can a Mediterranean Diet reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer and reduce the risk of getting dementia?

A review of the evidence published in 2010 found studies which indicated that following a Mediterranean Diet more fully is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (such as heart attack and stroke), cancer and neurodegenerative diseases (such as dementia).

Conclusions

 Further research would be helpful, to confirm initial findings - in particular more scientifically controlled trials comparing the health of people who follow a Mediterranean Diet with the health of a comparable group of people who don’t, with more consistent ingredients and quantities. 

However the good news is that most studies so far suggest a positive association between following a Mediterranean Diet and health benefits.

In particular this appears likely to help: 

  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease 
  • Manage weight and reduce the risk of obesity
  • Possibly even reduce the risk of cancer
  • Manage type 2 Diabetes.
  • Slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia.  

So following a Mediterranean Diet is likely to help us lead longer, healthier lives.  

To follow a Mediterranean Diet, eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, cereals, pulses, nuts, seeds, herbs and olive oil – consume a moderate amount of fish, cheese, poultry, eggs and red wine but only small amounts of red meat and saturated fats.

Published September 2014. Reviewed and updated by Natnaree Kaewhin March 2017. Next review date February 2020.

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