The One Diet That May Actually Save Your Life

After looking at 12 studies that followed more than 1,500,000 people over a span of 18 years, researchers at the University of Florence have determined that people who followed the Mediterranean Diet were:

  • 9% less likely to die from heart disease or other cardiovascular ailments
  • 6% less likely to develop or die from cancer
  • 13% less likely to contract Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease

According to WHO and CDC statistics, adherence to a Mediterranean diet would result in:

So What Is The Mediterranean Diet?

While it varies slightly from region to region, the Mediterranean Diet is based primarily on:

Fresh, healthy food: The staples of the Mediterranean diet include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, seafood, yogurt, olive oil, and small amounts of wine. Food should be eaten in season and locally grown, and Mediterranean dieters avoid processed food.

Portion control: The Mediterranean diet focuses on small portions of high-quality food. “When food tastes delicious, a little is enough because your senses have been satisfied,” And healthy fats like olive oil and nuts, which are staples of the Mediterranean diet, keep you feeling fuller longer than diets that restrict fat or forbid it altogether.

Healthy fats: Unlike most diets, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t cut fat consumption across the board.  Rather than limiting total fat intake, the Mediterranean diet makes wise choices about the type of fats that are used. On the menu are the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados; and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, and trout); and fat from plant sources, like flaxseed. Limiting processed and packaged foods keeps the diet extremely low in unhealthy trans fats, which have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and strokes.

Olive oil: The Mediterranean people use olive oil in almost everything they eat, including pastas, breads, vegetables, salads, fish, and even cakes and pastries. It’s the principal fat in the Mediterranean diet, replacing other fats and oils, including butter and margarine. What’s so healthy about olive oil? Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that oleocanthal, a compound in olive oil, may reduce inflammation, which could help prevent conditions like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune diseases, as well as certain cancers.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet, omega-3 fatty acids are bursting with health benefits. Fatty acids have been shown to reduce the incidence of heart attacks, blood clots, hypertension, and strokes; and may prevent certain forms of cancer and lower the risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

More vegetables, less meat: “A diet higher in plant foods and lower in animal products has been linked to decreased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers.”  The traditional Mediterranean diet is practically vegetarian, with lots of fish and very little meat. As for vegetables, Mediterranean people feast on tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, capers, spinach, eggplant, mushrooms, white beans, lentils, and chick peas.

Wine: Many Mediterranean people drink a glass or two of wine each night with dinner. But portions are small, generally about three ounces (a third of a small wine glass or two shot glasses). When taken in small amounts, wine has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, likely due to the presence of antioxidants like transresveratrol and oligomeric proanthocyanidin (OPC), which keep blood circulation healthy and prevent blood clots from forming.

Whole grains: Whole grain foods like bread, pasta, potatoes, polenta, rice, and couscous are a key part of the Mediterranean diet. In their natural state, grains are full of cancer and heart disease-fighting fiber, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. But stripping the grain’s outer layers to make white flour and white rice eliminates these benefits, reducing the healthy whole grain to little more than empty calories. Whole grains provide energy and calories with little fat, and because they’re slow to digest (thanks to their high-fiber content), they help you feel fuller longer.

Fruit for dessert: Forget pie a la mode and chocolate cake. For Mediterranean people, fresh fruit is the typical daily dessert. Taking advantage of fruit’s natural sweetness has double benefits. First, what you gain: the fiber and nutrients in fruits like apples, grapes, and oranges. What you lose: the added sugar, calories, chemicals, and unhealthy fats in sweet, processed desserts.

And we can only imagine what would happen to those health statistics if Mediterranean dieters were to increase their physical activity.


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  1. Hi,
    The info is really useful and if one could follow thru yr suggestions, i suppose, it may lead to good health.
    But having got used to sesame and ground nut oils, i find it altogether unpalatable the taste of olive oil in all my foods.
    What does one do to palliate the curry eating palate of the Indian?

  2. Another great post! How do you do it? This only hit the news yesterday!

    I’m not aware of any other eating pattern that can legitimately make all these health and longevity claims. Perhaps one of the vegetarian diets?

    The authors of the British Medical Journal article (free online) used an unusual definition of “Mediterranean diet.” Their Mediterranean diet score did not include olive oil (!) and deducted points for dairy product consumption. Nearly all Mediterranean diet definitions include cheese and yogurt, in low if not moderate amounts.


  3. Movid,

    There are lots of aspects of the Indian cuisine that are being praised for their health benefits.

    The curcumin found in numerous curries is fast becoming an alternative health superstar for it’s potent anti-inflammatory benefits.

    I think taking a look at pros and cons of various traditional diets would make for an interesting article.

    Thanks for the great idea.

  4. I love Mediterranean food, they just put a Mediterranean health food type restaurant on campus and people are loving it, meanwhile the lines at McDonalds aren’t as long anymore. I think my generation is getting the point.
    I find that the food is quite filling yet, while not actually eating a lot. Also, it gives you an appreciation for food that your not used to, and plus, while eating healthy this whole summer I managed to lose 20 pounds and Mediterranean food was one of my alternatives to Subway and Pizza Hut 🙂

  5. Sensico,

    Which school do you attend?
    When I was in university, I had to bring my own food because the cafeteria options were horrible.

  6. Movid – ain’t nothin wrong with curry! Indian food, especially dal, is one of my staples! But I’m a big fan of Mediterranean food, as well. As a veggie, its emphasis on fresh vegetables, legumes and grains is very appealing. The New York Times has been running a series of “healthy recipes” with a Mediterranean bent (I made a chickpea salad last week that was divine). Also, has plenty of great resources.

  7. One significant factor about the Mediterranean diet is that it is low in omega-6 fats.

    The Lyon Diet Heart study, which popularized the health benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet limited omega-6 fat. People ate a maximum of 7 grams of omega-6 fat per day (the amount in one tablespoon of soybean oil).

    This landmark study made headline news because of it’s remarkable (and unprecedented) lower death rate from all causes, especially cancer. When the results were published in the American Heart Association’s scientific journal, Circulation in 1999, it was accompanied by an editorial by Alexander Leaf, which stressed that only the diet with the lower omega-6 fat and higher omega-3 fat was beneficial. (

    Interestingly, the other group of people in the Lyon Diet Heart study, were put on a classic cardiac diet, which was high in omega-6 fat and they had no such improvement.

    Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD
    Author: Ultimate Omega-3 Diet
    Blog: Omega-6 Fat Research News

  8. Evelyn,

    Thank you for your contribution.

    We should always remember that in addition to adding more Omega-3s into our diet, we also need to reduce our consumption on Omega-6s.

    For anyone interested in learning more about Omega-6, visit Evelyn’s blog.

    Lots of great info.

  9. dr,

    i think this sort of goes against your newer post. whether or not the mediterranean diet has benefits, the problem is that it’s still a diet. i have the book. it’s just dietitians trying to market a plan that happens to be a way of life for some people (people who live really far from here, in a totally different client, with access to totally different crops and local products). the overall message is to eat healthier, right? so, a plan like this is still just a diet. in my humble opinion.

  10. Hi Adina,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Merriam-Webster defines DIET as:

    Main Entry:
    Middle English diete, from Anglo-French, from Latin diaeta, from Greek diaita, literally, manner of living, from diaitasthai to lead one’s life
    13th century

    1 a: food and drink regularly provided or consumed
    1b: habitual nourishment
    1c: the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason
    1d: a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight 2: something provided or experienced repeatedly <a diet of Broadway shows and nightclubs

    It’s too bad that the word “diet” in today’s society has become automatically associated with caloric restriction.- 1d

    Using the first definition of diet – 1a, the Mediterranean diet should be categorized as the food and drink regularly provided or consumed by people of the Mediterranean region.

    This “traditional” diet focused on fresh, local, natural and quite often organic foods.

    I feel that this message becomes distorted by the marketing machine built to sell “diet books” to a North American population desperate to drop a few pounds.

    So, I agree with you; the overall message should be to eat healthier…not to focus on calories or BMI or celebrity diets or…

    To be honest, I haven’t even read the Mediterranean Diet book. I focused on the research papers upon which the “diet” based.

    There really should be no need for a mediterranian diet book. The message of the Mediterranean diet or any other ‘real food’ diet is to eat foods that are close to their natural state.

    It’s not about eating the same foods that they eat in the Mediterranean or in Okinawa or in the Blue Zones or in South Beach, etc…

    We all can find healthy foods grown right in our own backyard.

    Wait a minute, this is starting to sound like an advertisement for Michael Pollan or the 100 Mile Diet.

    Thanks again for the feedback.

  11. I had a chance to do a formal analysis of the British Medical Journal article, and blogged about it here:

    I am honored that the lead author, Dr. Sofi, took the time to respond to my analysis. Find his comments at the link above.

    For anyone interested in weight loss via Mediterranean-style eating, I also have a blog page on how to do it:


  12. Calorie restriction is not the name of my game, but I have been eating much like this for 20 years. I am not “on a diet”, it’s just the way I eat. I choose not to eat much flesh, but many places I go, fish is the only whole food available. My kids have grown up eating whole foods, and to them, it isn’t “strange food” at all. Even grocery stores are starting to stock better products, and if they don’t, ask them to order for you. Health food stores are popping up everywhere. It really isn’t a challenge to eat whole foods, if you are determined.

    Thank you Health Habits. Heart disease is still the biggest killer in the western world and education is your best defense. Please join the discussion at Heart Failure Solutions.

  13. I am sold on the diet but where do I find a decent book with the exchange list and the amounts and also a wide variety of recipes? I have looked in the local library and nothing there and I have looked at Costco, which is where I make most of my book purchases and they have nothing. I want a good all around basic book. Right now I am eating basically black beans or pinto beans and brown rice I want a variety and I love fish and I only use olive oil and can learn to like pasta etc.

  14. Pennypenguin,

    I am trying to find you a great resource. Most of them are incomplete in some way. I will contact you when I find a really good one.

    I just spoke with the author of the study and since she is planning to write / publish a book based on this subject, she isn’t willing to give us any more details


  15. Yummy! Are you single sweety?!! Don’t worry, I’m not skiztso or insane or anything (although there are sick people out there invading my privacy who would jump on this as an opportunity to say so). Therefore, I would like to say to them, behold, I come to you with many identities!! Tsk, Tsk! Just like you, I like to be a little artistic and have a little fun too! Looks like you’re putting a lot of “heart [or actually squashed tomato] into your food there!!”


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