The Mediterranean Diet and Olive Oil: What You Need to Know

Adopting a healthier lifestyle will often require you to apply some scrutiny to your diet because, as they say, you are what you eat. And when it comes to health-based food plans, it’s tough to beat the Mediterranean Diet. Unlike many fad diets focused on rapid weight loss or dramatic changes, the Mediterranean approach is more about adopting a lifestyle. There are no extremes in what you can and can’t eat, making it easier to stick with the diet long term, which makes it sustainable. And of course, the delicious food inspired by Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece leaves nothing lacking when it comes to flavor.

Learn more about the Mediterranean diet, including what kinds of health benefits it provides and the special role that olive oil plays in this lifestyle.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean Diet is based on the types of food eaten in countries that the Mediterranean Sea. This way of eating focuses primarily on plant-based foods and healthy fats.

Beginning in the 1950s, people started to take an interest in the Mediterranean diet because the rates of heart disease in Mediterranean countries were found to be significantly lower than that of the U.S. Of course, people living near the Mediterranean had been eating this type of cuisine for centuries due to the availability of ingredients in the region. But once the connection to potential health benefits was made, many Americans began to look more closely at what types of ingredients and meals helped contribute to the superior overall health and longevity of Mediterranean natives.

In addition to certain eating habits, many people look at the Mediterranean lifestyle as a larger philosophy and lifestyle approach. They try to not only eat similar to the way in which those in Mediterranean countries do, but also to adopt some of the practices of Mediterranean culture, such as:

  • Staying active through regular exercise
  • Avoiding smoking and the use of tobacco products
  • Cooking at home more than eating out
  • Eating locally sourced foods when possible
  • Preparing and enjoying meals with loved ones

Mediterranean Diet Foods

Mediterranean Diet recipes focus on the following ingredients:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Herbs and spices

Foods and beverages which should be consumed in moderation on the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Wine

For this diet, the following foods and beverages should be consumed on a very limited basis or not at all:

  • Meat, especially red meat
  • Sweets
  • Butter
  • Sugary drinks

Olive Oil’s Role in the Mediterranean Diet

Consuming olive oil is an important part of the Mediterranean Diet. In fact, it’s the primary source of added fat in this eating plan. However, it’s important to note that the Mediterranean Diet specifically calls for extra virgin olive oil. This type of olive oil, often abbreviated as EVOO, contains more unsaturated fats than saturated fats, creating a better healthy-fat ratio. It’s also high in antioxidants.

Extra virgin olive oil’s health benefits largely stem from its monounsaturated fats, which help to lower total cholesterol, including the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol which can be harmful for your health.

EVOO also contains antioxidants, polyphenols, and oleic acid, all of which are connected to a number of important health benefits, which are described in more detail below.

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is rich in nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats. It limits the intake of unhealthy fats (like saturated fats and trans fats), refined carbohydrates (like sugar), and sodium.

Some of the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean Diet include:

  • Better heart health, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Healthy blood sugar and blood pressure levels
  • Healthy cholesterol levels
  • Healthy body weight
  • Lowered risk for certain types of cancer
  • Healthy gut and digestive system
  • Lowered risk of metabolic syndrome
  • Slowing decline of brain function due to aging
  • Longer lifespan

The Mediterranean Diet is highly recommended by many cardiologists due to its close association with good heart health. And that’s not just compared to people who eat an unhealthy diet. In fact, there have been studies which show superior health benefits for the Mediterranean diet compared to other types of diet plans.

For example, one study followed people with a high risk of cardiovascular disease for five years. These people were split into two groups, and one followed a Mediterranean Diet while the other followed a low-fat diet. There was a 30% lower risk of cardiovascular events like heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular-related death among those in the Mediterranean Diet group compared to the low-fat diet group.

Mediterranean Diet Recipe Ideas

Now that you know more about the Mediterranean diet, you might be wondering what types of breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes fit into this eating plan. Some of the favorite Mediterranean recipes among people who follow this diet closely resemble the foods which are actually consumed in Mediterranean countries. Here are some of those recipes along with their main ingredients:

  • Chickpea salad: Chickpeas, tomatoes, green peppers, red onion, capers, basil
  • Greek salad: Cucumber, bell peppers, red onion, kalamata olives, feta cheese
  • Falafel: Chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, cumin, chickpea flour
  • Tomato Salad: Tomatoes, basil, red onions and mozzarella balls
  • Minestrone: tomatoes, celery, carrots, beans, onions, vegetable broth
  • Shakshuka: Poached eggs, tomato sauce, onion, bell pepper, garlic

Whatever types of recipes you decide to experiment with, try to keep the following tips in mind if you’re striving to follow the Mediterranean diet:

  • Whenever possible, use EVOO instead of butter.
  • Incorporate more herbs, spices, lemon juice, etc. for seasoning instead of salt.
  • Make vegetables, beans, and whole grains the star of your meals rather than meat.
  • Swap out sugar-heavy desserts for desserts featuring fruit.