Advance with MUSC Health

Staying Healthy with a Mediterranean Diet

Jerry Reves, M.D.
January 31, 2023
Healthy Mediterranean diet foods on a table, including bananas, eggs, salmon, lean chicken, yogurt, olive oil, seeds, nuts, and carrots

How’s your new year diet so far? We’ve written many times that we can influence only a few things about our health. One is our lifestyle, including exercise, and the other is what we eat – and, just importantly, what we do not eat.

When the word “diet” appears in a title, our thoughts quickly turn to food, followed by unpleasant restrictions. Since the 1960s, however, a growing body of scientific evidence has revealed that there is a simple, good and good-for-you diet that we can all stick to — one that promotes good health and prolongs life. It is the authentic Mediterranean diet.

Let’s talk about the history and nutritional value of the Mediterranean diet and the many vibrant, delicious foods it includes.


Studies in the middle of the last century demonstrated that people living along the Mediterranean Sea, principally in Crete, had a longer life span than Americans and most Europeans. Years of subsequent research found that their diet consisted of fresh vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil and fruits. They consumed very little meat, especially red meat.

The investigation that followed indicated that the diet in this region had little saturated fat but was high in Omega-3 fatty acid and fiber. Best news of all, when people living elsewhere, including the United States, followed this diet, they experienced improved health and a reduction in many deadly diseases.

What Exactly is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the triad of wheat (bread), grapes (including red wine) and olives (extra-virgin olive oil.) It’s a diet that allows great flexibility owing to the inclusion of fresh vegetables, beans, fruits, potatoes and occasional chicken and fish with red wine, water, tea, or coffee to drink.

Food is prepared by cooking, including frying, baking, or sautéing with olive oil. Cheese and yogurt are included, but most dairy products are verboten, as are desserts. Local and seasonal ingredients keep the variety going year-round. The food is quick and easy to prepare and, best of all, tastes good! Turns out that olive oil provides a high satiety factor that keeps one from overindulging.

The main food group recommended is vegetables — the fresher the better — but canned and frozen vegetables can be substituted for fresh. Greens in a salad or cooked with extra-virgin olive oil are important sources of fiber. Fresh fruit makes a good dessert. Dry beans are best, but if canned are used, look for low-salted ones. Whole-grain breads are a mainstay of the diet and served with most dishes. For meats, chicken or grass-fed pork is best. Fish containing fat, such as salmon, is recommended. Cheeses such as feta, ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella are on the diet along with yogurt.

Health Benefits

This diet has been studied scientifically more than any other. Hundreds of papers have been published on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. To briefly summarize these by category, the diet has proven to be beneficial in preventing and mitigating heart disease. It reduces bad cholesterol, lowers blood pressure and reduces death from heart disease in those who have known coronary artery disease. It also reduces death from all causes of cardiovascular disease death by 25 percent.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and can also lessen its effects on people who already have the disease. This is due, in part, to the fact that people usually lose weight on the diet.

Following a Mediterranean diet is also associated with a lower incidence of some cancers such as breast, prostate and colorectal, all of which are common killers in our country. This is because of the many antioxidants in fruits and vegetables. Evidence also shows people on this diet have less early onset of dementia and that depression is less frequent. Finally, people who stick to the Mediterranean diet live longer than those who eat the typical Western diet.

Foods and Drinks to Avoid

The Mediterranean diet includes a lot of foods we can eat, but it also excludes some popular items in our diet. Leading the list is all processed food, including vegetables and meats. Red meat can be used for cooking but should not be eaten as an entrée. Neither should any of the meats that contain white fat, such as pork, turkey and rabbit. Avoid all prepared foods and drinks with added sugar, and limit alcohol to red wine — no cocktails, beer, or other adult beverages. Fast foods, snacks and other tempting foods are off-limits.

The Bottom Line

Every day, we must choose what to eat. If we make intelligent decisions, we can consume healthful and healthy foods that have been proven to prolong our life. The choice is ours.

The list below lists ultra-processed items that should be left on the grocery store shelf.
Frozen, packaged foods like pizza, chicken nuggets, French fries

  • Sweetened candy bars, cereals and breakfast bars
  • Chips and other salted snacks
  • Most soft drinks and fruit drinks
  • Canned Soups
  • Cakes, cake mixes and cookies
  • Instant noodles, breads containing preservatives to maintain shelf life. Check bread labels.

(Modified from Paravantes, E. The Mediterranean Diet. Alpha. 2020)