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Mediterranean Diet and Diabetes

The Diet That Made Us Rethink Diets


Updated April 28, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Olive oil, cheese, yogurt, whole grains, beans, wine, fruits, and vegetables—sounds good doesn't it? Hardly sounds like "dieting" but amazingly, according to research, these may be components of a diet that can reduce risk for heart disease, some cancers, and add some years to your life. More great news, follow the basics of a Mediterranean diet and diabetes benefits could follow.

Why is This Diet so Healthy?

This diet has plenty of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, mostly from olive oil. Nuts, seeds, and olives are also good sources of this type of fat that has been found to reduce belly fat, promote weight loss, and reduce cholesterol. In addition, the diet has a good amount of heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory, triglyceride-lowering, omega-3 fatty acids from seafood and walnuts. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains provide fiber and antioxidants. All these components together make for a powerhouse diet.

Mediterranean Diet Background

The Mediterranean diet is based on the lifestyle and traditional way of eating in some countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. It was found that although some people in those countries consumed a high amount of dietary fat, they had a lower incidence of heart disease and decreased mortality. A survey in the 1960's took a closer look at the diet of people who lived on the Greek island of Crete because their death rate was seven times lower than that of American men. Unfortunately, today, many of these people have moved away from their traditional diet and their risk for heart disease has increased.

The benefits of this type of diet have been noted as far back as Renaissance times. However, it wasn't widely popularized until Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health shed more light on the subject starting in the 1990s. He wrote a popular book called Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy which advocates this lifestyle. Many other modern diet plans are based in varying degrees on the Mediterranean diet.

The folks at Harvard along with the World Health Organization and the nonprofit group Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust created a Mediterranean diet pyramid which not only has fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains at its base, but also olive oil, nuts, and seeds. The 25-40% of calories from fat comes mostly from olive oil and was controversial when this diet was first presented to the general public. However, because of the efforts of these people, we have changed the way we look at healthy eating in general. In particular it should be pointed out that many of the modern standard recommendations for a healthy diabetes diet and lifestyle have come about because of research into the Mediterranean diet.


According to the Oldways website, benefits include a longer life, healthier babies, improved brain function, decreased chronic disease and cancer risk. The Mediterranean diet offers a decreased incidence of depression, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dental disease. In addition, rheumatoid arthritis, eye health, breathing, and fertility can be improved.

Diabetes-Specific and Related Benefits

  • Decreased risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Decreased risk for heart disease.
  • Better diabetes control.
  • High blood pressure, insulin resistance, and poor blood fat levels are components of metabolic syndrome which is the name for a group of conditions that can indicate an increased risk for heart disease. Studies have shown the risk for these factors are reduced with this diet.
  • Risk for inflammation, which is thought to be related to diabetes, is reduced as well.
  • Insulin sensitivity may be improved.
  • Weight gain prevention and weight loss promotion are favorable because this diet is generally lower in calories, high in fiber, high in monounsaturated fat, and contains plenty of antioxidants.
  • Decreased risk for macular degeneration.

Mediterranean Diet Basics

  • Drink plenty of water and wine in moderation.
  • Get plenty of exercise.
  • Enjoy the company of others at meals.
  • Choose minimally processed seasonal local foods when possible.
  • Use extra-virgin olive oil as your main dietary fat.
  • Base meals on the following: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs and spices.
  • Eat fish and seafood often, two times per week or more.
  • Enjoy daily or weekly moderate portions of cheese, yogurt, eggs, and poultry.
  • Have red meats and sweets less often.
  • Eat fruit for dessert and limit other sweets.

Visit the Oldways website for more information and a downloadable Mediterranean food pyramid.


Esposito MD PhD, Katherine; Maiorino MD, Maria Ida; Tiotola MD, Miryam; Di Palo MD, Carmen; Scognamiglio MD, Paola; Gicchino MD, Maurizio; Petrizzo MD, Michela; Saccomanno MD, Frank; Beneduce MD, Flora; Ceriello MD, Antonio; Giugliano MD PhD, Dario. "Effects of a Mediterranean-Style Diet on the Need for Antihyperglycemic Drug Therapy in Patients With Newly Diagnosed Type 2 Diabetes" Annals of Internal Medicine September 2009 151(5):306-314

Med Diet & Health. Oldways Health Through Heritage. Accessed: April 15, 2012. http://www.oldwayspt.org/resources/heritage-pyramids/mediterranean-diet-pyramid/med-diet-health#diabetes

Schroder, Helmut. "Protective Mechanisms of the Mediterranean Diet in Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes." Nutritional Biochemistry September 2006 18(3):149-60.

Shai RD PhD, Iris; Schwarzfuchs MD, Dan; Henkin MD, Yaakov; Shahar RD PhD, Danit; Witkow RD MPH, Shula; Greenberg RD MPH, Ilana; Golan RD MPH, Rachel; Fraser PhD, Drora; Bolotin PhD, Arkady; Vardi MSC, Hilel; Tangi-Rozental BA, Osnat; Zuk-Ramot RN, Rachel' Sarusi MSC, Benjamin; Brockner MD, Dov; Schwartz MD, Ziva; Sheiner MD, Einat; Marko MSC, Rachel; Katorza MSC, Esther; Thiery MD, Joachim; Fieldler MD, Gerog Martin; Bluher MD, Matthias; Strumvoli MD, Michael; Stampfer MD DrPH, Meir J. "Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet." N Engl J Med July 2008 359(3):229-41

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