Published 14th March 2022

What is the Mediterranean diet, and is it really the healthiest way to eat?

Despite the name, the Mediterranean diet is not a restrictive food plan but a broad way of eating. It focuses on consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, healthy fats like olive oil, and fish. 

Studies show that eating this way is good for your health and can be particularly beneficial for reducing your risk of heart disease. 

However, more recent research suggests that personalized nutrition plans could be better than the Mediterranean diet at managing some of the factors that contribute to long-term health conditions. 

ZOE runs the largest nutrition study of its kind, with over 15,000 participants so far. Our research shows that everyone responds differently to food and that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. 

With ZOE’s at-home test, you discover your body’s unique responses to what you eat and how this can impact your long-term health. Based on your results, the ZOE program provides you with personalized advice on the foods that are best for you. 

You can take a free quiz to find out more.

Keep reading to learn more about the Mediterranean diet, why it’s good for you, and why a personalized approach to eating could be even better.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on foods eaten by people living in Italy and Greece during the 1950s and 60s. 

It’s a pattern of eating that involves lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, cereals, healthy fats, and fish. 

The countries around the Mediterranean have a great variety of these types of food, each with their own unique typical diet. That's why the Mediterranean diet is an eating lifestyle, rather than a prescriptive diet.

If you want to try following the Mediterranean diet, include plenty of these foods: 

  • Fruits: apples, grapes, cherries, oranges, melons, strawberries, tomatoes 

  • Vegetables: eggplant, kale, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, spinach, onions, broccoli, garlic 

  • Herbs and spices: basil, parsley, coriander, thyme, paprika, cumin, pepper 

  • Carbohydrates: wholewheat bread, whole grain pasta, whole grain rice, cereals, couscous, potatoes

  • Nuts and seeds: cashew nuts, peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds 

  • Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, avocados, olives 

  • Legumes: chickpeas, beans, lentils

  • Fish and seafood: trout, mussels, oysters, sardines, anchovies, herring 

A scientific review of many different studies and clinical trials of the Mediterranean diet summarized the recommendations of what to eat daily as:

  • 225-675 grams of vegetables

  • 30-150 g of fruit

  • 1-13 portions of cereals

  • up to 80 g of olive oil

This amounts to around 33 g of fiber and just under 40% of total daily calories coming from mostly healthy fats.

You can also consume meat, dairy, and alcohol — particularly red wine — in moderation. 

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

A number of large-scale studies, taking place over several years, suggest that the Mediterranean diet can contribute to a lower risk of several chronic health conditions, particularly heart disease.

In one study, researchers followed 75,000 women aged 38–63 over the course of 20 years. Women who had a Mediterranean dietary pattern had around a 30% lower risk of heart disease and around a 10% lower risk of stroke. 

The Mediterranean diet may even help to extend the lives of people who already have heart problems. 

When researchers looked at the diet of over 17,000 people with cardiovascular disease, they found that those who stuck more closely to a Mediterranean diet were less likely to have died from any cause during the following 5–8 years.

One of the reasons the Mediterranean diet may be associated with lower risks of some long-term diseases is the healthy fats it includes. Unsaturated fats can help to keep your cholesterol levels in check, which is important for your heart health. 

Several thousand people at high risk of heart disease took part in a study in Spain.

It found that those who ate Mediterranean diets supplemented with either nuts or extra-virgin olive oil — containing healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — were less likely to have a heart attack in later years than those who followed a low-fat diet. 

The Mediterranean diet has also been linked to a reduced risk of cancer. Scientists think this could be due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of many of the foods it contains, such as fruits and vegetables.

Another study, involving participants aged 55–80 and taking place over several years, showed that people who ate a Mediterranean diet were more than 50% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who did not follow the diet. 

Is the Mediterranean diet the healthiest way to eat?

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating pattern. Regularly eating foods from each of the groups listed above will give you a balanced diet high in important nutrients. 

Following a Mediterranean diet isn’t a bad choice for anyone — but it might not be the best choice for everyone. 

Research involving over 15,000 people, carried out by scientists at ZOE and international academic collaborators, has shown that everyone's blood sugar and blood fat responses to food are unique.

This means that a diet that works for one person might not work so well for someone else. 

Your body’s unique responses to food

Some of your body’s most important responses to food are the changes to your blood sugar and blood fat levels after you eat. 

A change in blood sugar and blood fat after a meal is part of a normal, healthy response. But data suggest that larger blood sugar “spikes” can lead to “crashes” later on. These can make you feel tired or low in energy.

You may also be hungry again sooner and more likely to crave sugary foods. 

In the long term, eating a diet that causes your blood sugar and blood fat levels to stay high can increase your risk of health conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It can also lead to weight gain. 

Since everyone has unique blood sugar and blood fat responses to the foods they eat, the “best” diet is different from person to person. 

Research suggests that personalized nutrition plans may be better than the Mediterranean diet at helping people with prediabetes control their blood sugar levels, which is important in reducing the risk of chronic health conditions in the long term. 

Your gut microbiome and choosing the best foods for you

Another factor that plays a part in your individual responses to foods is your gut microbiome. That’s the name for the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live in your gut. 

ZOE scientists have identified 15 “good” and 15 “bad” gut bugs. Many of these are linked to better or worse blood sugar and blood fat control, as well as your risk of heart disease and increased belly fat. 

Using the latest scientific techniques, the ZOE at-home test analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat responses, as well as the gut bugs that you currently have in your gut microbiome. 

Based on your unique results, the ZOE program gives your personalized recommendations so you can choose the best foods to eat for your body and your long-term health. 

You can take a free quiz to find out what the ZOE program can do for you. 

Summary

The Mediterranean diet is a pattern of eating that involves a variety of food groups with lots of essential nutrients, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, and healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil. You can also consume meat, dairy, and alcohol in moderation. 

Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet is good for long-term health, and large-scale studies have linked it to a lower risk of health conditions including heart disease. 

However, studies also suggest that the way our bodies respond to the foods typically consumed on the Mediterranean diet varies from person to person. 

This means that following a personalized nutrition plan could be an even better option for your long-term health, as it takes your unique responses to food into consideration.

Ready to discover the best foods for you? You can take a free quiz to learn how.

Sources

A daily glass of red wine associated with lifestyle changes independently improves blood lipids in patients with carotid arteriosclerosis: results from a randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal. (2013). https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-12-147 

Cancer and Mediterranean diet: a review. Nutrients. (2019).  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31480794/

Definition of the Mediterranean diet; a literature review. Nutrients. (2015).  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4663587/

Mediterranean diet and incidence of and mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke in women. Circulation. (2009). https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.816736 

Personalized postprandial glucose response-targeting diet versus Mediterranean diet for glycemic control in prediabetes. Diabetes Care. (2021).  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34301736/

Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts. The New England Journal of Medicine. (2018). https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1800389 

Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with the Mediterranean diet: results of the PREDIMED-Reus nutrition intervention randomized trial. Diabetes Care. (2011). https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article/34/1/14/27298/Reduction-in-the-Incidence-of-Type-2-Diabetes-With 

The emerging role of Mediterranean diets in cardiovascular epidemiology: monounsaturated fats, olive oil, red wine or the whole pattern? European Journal of Epidemiology. (2004). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15012018/

The Mediterranean-style dietary pattern and mortality among men and women with cardiovascular disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2014). https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/1/172/4577277