Can the Mediterranean Diet Prolong Life?

By Dina Cheney

Let’s face it: Humans naturally thrive on novelty—so we’re always looking to the latest trendy diet for anything from weight loss to more energy and better health. And we often forget about diets from decades past that have continuously served to help people achieve their goals and live healthy, happy, fit and fulfilling lives.

Case in point: the Mediterranean diet. In the 1950s, American scientist Ancel Keys discovered that Greeks and Italians consumed a diet low in saturated fats and high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. They also experienced lower rates of coronary heart disease (when compared with Americans and Europeans). Discerning a causal relationship between this diet and longevity, Keys popularized what he called the “Mediterranean diet.”

U.S. News & World Report, which ranked it as the No. 1 eating plan, says, “It’s generally accepted that the folks in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea live longer and suffer less than most Americans from cancer and cardiovascular ailments.” Read on to learn more about the Mediterranean diet’s tenets and health benefits and how to integrate them into your daily life.

Basic principles

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, created in 1993 by Oldways with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, lays out the pattern’s core principles. Whole grains, vegetables and legumes are mainstays. Other go-to ingredients include fresh fruit, nuts, seeds and cold-pressed olive oil. While seafood, eggs, poultry and dairy should be consumed moderately, red and processed meats and sweets should be rare components. Beverages include water and wine (especially red), the latter in moderation and with meals. Along with diet, adherents should exercise and maintain an active social life.

The key players

Each of the diet’s staple foods contributes to maximal health. Here’s how:

  • Fruits and vegetables: Low in fat and calories and devoid of cholesterol, produce is also rich in nutrients (including potassium, folate, vitamins A and C, and fiber). While potassium has been linked to reduced blood pressure and bone preservation, folate contributes to the formation of red blood cells. Vitamin A benefits the eyes and skin, and vitamin C boosts teeth and gum health and helps heal wounds. Fiber satiates, contributes to bowel function, and has been linked with reduced risks of blood cholesterol and heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
  • Whole grains: A strong source of dietary fiber, whole grains also provide B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium and selenium). B vitamins help release energy from macronutrients, while iron transports oxygen in the blood, magnesium assists with the formation of bones and selenium promotes cellular health. “A diet rich in whole grains has been associated with weight management, decreased risks of heart disease and colon cancer, and better gut health,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
  • Nuts, seeds and olive oil: Nuts and seeds offer fiber, protein and healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, plus sometimes also omega-3 fatty acids). Research has associated increased nut consumption with reduced risks of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease. The fats in nuts help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, blood clots and arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms).
  • Seafood: With few calories, seafood brings protein, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids to the table. Omega-3’s have been linked with a reduction in inflammation, triglycerides and blood pressure and also a decrease in the risks of stroke, heart failure and irregular heart rhythms.
  • Poultry and eggs: Poultry and eggs provide protein and B vitamins, with less saturated fat than red meat. Eggs also contain lutein and zeaxanthin (which may cut the risk of macular degeneration) and choline (which may promote brain health).
  • Wine: “Moderate amounts of wine, especially red wine, may play a role in longevity by contributing to brain health and reduced inflammation,” Kirkpatrick points out. “However, with alcohol, there are many variables. Too much or none at all seems to be associated with adverse brain health in new studies.”

Backed by research

Based on recent research alone, the Mediterranean diet indeed appears to promote longevity—which Kirkpatrick believes is largely because of its avoidance of saturated fats, sugars and refined grains. Studies have linked it to improved health, including reduced risks of heart disease and blood pressure, obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, LDL cholesterol, cancer, bone frailty, brain atrophy and harmful inflammation. In its ranking of diets, U.S. News & World Report highlights the Mediterranean approach as ideal for heart health and managing diabetes. Unfortunately, though, according to the same publication, the Mediterranean diet is not a top choice for weight loss, in particular, rapid pound shedding. Instead, consider it a lifelong eating plan for optimal health.

A few caveats …

Despite the compelling evidence supporting the efficacy of the diet, we all know that there is no magic bullet when it comes to longevity. Kirkpatrick reminds us that we need to remember the (key) roles of genetics in predicting our life spans, plus healthful strategies, such as eating smaller portions and maintaining an active lifestyle. “It’s not just one component,” she says. “The accumulation of several habits perhaps helps fight disease.”

The Mediterranean diet all day

If you’d like to give this diet a shot, know that it’s a set of general principles—rather than a strict regimen. This means that the onus is on adherents to monitor what they eat: a plus for the disciplined and a potential minus for those who have trouble staying the healthful course. Read on for real-world ideas on how to integrate the plan into your lifestyle, remembering to avoid added sweeteners and to mostly eschew saturated fats (butter, full-fat dairy products, red meat).


  • Oatmeal cooked with water or low-fat or nondairy milk, sweetened with fresh fruit
  • Whole-grain pancakes (prepared with nut and whole-grain flours) topped with fresh fruit
  • Parfaits with fresh berries, toasted nuts or seeds, and fat-free or low-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt or skyr (Scandinavian strained yogurt)
  • Poached eggs served with fresh cucumber, tomato and bell pepper salad, and toasted whole-wheat pita bread
  • Vegetable frittata (baked omelet) with a toasted whole-grain English muffin


  • Tossed salad topped with tuna; served with whole-wheat pita bread
  • Bulgur or farro with chickpeas, vegetables and fruit, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
  • Whole-grain pasta with sauteed vegetables, white beans and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese
  • Chicken, vegetable and hummus wraps on whole-wheat tortillas or lettuce leaves


  • Apple slices with almond butter
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Raw vegetable sticks with hummus
  • Toasted whole-wheat pita bread with baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant spread)
  • Low-fat string cheese
  • Watermelon with feta cheese, black pepper and olive oil
  • Popcorn with extra-virgin olive oil, black pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


  • Roast fish or chicken with steamed broccoli and brown rice
  • Stewed black beans with quinoa, guacamole and mango-tomato salsa
  • Shrimp saute with white wine and lemon; served with sauteed spinach and whole-wheat pasta
  • Chicken fajitas with sauteed onions and peppers, whole-wheat or corn tortillas, salsa and guacamole
  • Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce, chickpeas and roasted eggplant


  • Dates and toasted pistachio nuts
  • Orange and grapefruit segments with sea salt and fresh lime
  • Apple wedges with cardamom and toasted almonds
  • Roasted bananas with cinnamon and vanilla extract
  • Roasted plums served atop low-fat Greek yogurt flavored with vanilla extract

Photo credit: kityyaya, Adobe Stock; newannyart, Thinkstock; Halfpoint, Thinkstock; Rawpixel, Thinkstock


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Dina Cheney

Dina Cheney is a writer and recipe developer whose cookbooks include “The New Milks,” “Mug Meals,” “Meatless All Day,” “Year-Round Slow Cooker,” “Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Salads,” and “Tasting Club.” She has contributed articles and recipes to Every Day with Rachel Ray, Parents, Fine Cooking, Clean Eating, Specialty Food, Coastal Living, The Huffington Post, and more. Cheney is a graduate of The Institute of Culinary Education and Columbia University. Find her online at www.dinacheney.com, and her complete collection of non-dairy resources at www.thenewmilks.com.