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The Mediterranean Diet On Trial

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(Image credit: Unknown)

The Theory

The catch-all name for the traditional diet eaten by the populations of Italy, Greece and southern France and Spain. Obviously, the cuisine varies by region, but it usually includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, cereal grains, olive oil and fish, along with moderate amounts of red wine and limited sugar.

The Evidence

Solid. This one’s been around for a while. A 2011 review of studies found that the Mediterranean diet is probably more effective than a low-fat diet in lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure, while a 2015 study found that adherence to the diet lowers your overall stroke risk. If your main concern is fat loss, though, you might want to look elsewhere: a 2016 review found that it’s no more successful than other diets.

The Good

It’s not a difficult diet to follow, and the food recommendations still allow for social eating with minimal hardship. It also shares a few similarities with the currently popular Sirt diet, which suggests that the protective effects of red wine and olive oil (among other things) are actually related to a little-researched class of proteins called sirtuins, discovered only in 2005. Put it this way: you’re unlikely to do yourself any harm following this one, even though the mechanisms aren’t clear.

The Bad

Though there’s a decent amount of evidence to support the diet, some studies are confounded by lifestyle factors. There’s an argument that the benefits arise from actually living in Mediterranean countries, which comes with more social support and less stress than the typical British office-worker grind. You might also need to be picky about your olive oil and greens: the traditional kind are grown in the mountains and tend to be very antioxidant-heavy, which might complicate matters.

Eat More Of These

The Mediterranean diet isn’t very prescriptive, especially as there is a great range in the kind of foods eaten around the Med, but for a start you’ll want to up the amount of fruit and vegetables you eat. No need to get fancy with the types involved – just make sure you have a portion with every meal.

You should also up your intake of seafood, especially oily fish, and legumes like beans and lentils. Nuts and seeds, wholegrain carbs and tubers like sweet potatoes should all also feature regularly on your menu, and make sure everything is drizzled with olive oil. OK, maybe not everything.

Avoid These

Nothing is explicitly outlawed with the Mediterranean diet but when it comes to meat you should aim for poultry and fish over red meat, and all meat should be eaten in moderation. The same goes for dairy and eggs, and you should avoid added sugars and processed foods where possible.

The Expert Verdict

The Mediterranean diet ticks all the right boxes for dietitian Chloe Miles of the British Dietetic Association. “The diet encourages plenty of fruit and vegetables, beans and pulses, fish, wholegrain cereals, and modest amounts of olive oil and low-fat dairy. It has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and it may also help you maintain a healthy weight.”

Joel Snape
Joel Snape

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.