It can be difficult to find a healthy, balanced diet that aligns with a typical lifestyle and still boasts health benefits. In 2024, the Mediterranean diet was ranked best diet overall by U.S. News & World Report’s 14th annual Best Diets rankings — the seventh year in a row the diet ranked best overall.

“Because the Mediterranean diet focuses on nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and healthy fats, it leaves little room for the saturated fat, added sugars and sodium that inundate the standard American diet,” notes U.S. News & World Report.

“As a result, people who eat a Mediterranean-style diet have longer life spans, report a higher quality of life and are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.”

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What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is influenced by how people living in surrounding areas of the Mediterranean eat — countries such as Greece, Italy and Croatia. The diet emphasizes whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, fish, olive oil, whole grains and moderate amounts of dairy.

“It’s one of a small number of diets that has research to back it up,” Dr. Sean Heffron, a preventive cardiologist at NYU Langone Health, told The New York Times. “It isn’t a diet that was cooked up in the mind of some person to generate money. It’s something that was developed over time, by millions of people, because it actually tastes good. And it just happens to be healthy.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet encourages eating:

  • Fruits and vegetables.
  • Whole grains.
  • Legumes.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Lean meats like fish and poultry.
  • Olive oil.

And limiting foods such as:

  • Red meat and processed meats.
  • Added sugars.
  • Ultra-processed foods.
  • Sodium.

Following the Mediterranean diet is proven to impact physical and mental health in positive ways.

“The various mechanisms are well known,” says Joanna Troulakis, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens, per Healthline. “By limiting saturated and trans fats, the diet decreases LDL — or bad — cholesterol, which causes plaque buildup in the arteries, or atherosclerosis, and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. By encouraging healthy unsaturated fats, it combats inflammation and promotes brain health.”

Here are five physical and mental health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet.

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1. Improves heart health

Following the Mediterranean diet can help improve cardiovascular health. The diet’s emphasis on vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and vegetable oils falls in line with the heart-healthy dietary patterns recommended by the American Heart Association.

“This style of eating can play a big role in preventing heart disease and stroke and reducing risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” writes the American Heart Association.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers closely observed the diets of nearly 26,000 women for a span of 12 years. The women who followed the Mediterranean diet during that time frame experienced a 25% reduced risk of developing heart disease, the study notes.

Several studies have produced similar results. In a clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers followed more than 7,000 men and women in Spain who were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or high risk for heart disease. The participants who consumed a non-calorie restricted Mediterranean diet had a 30% lowered risk of developing heart disease.

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2. Eases depression

The Mediterranean diet is often recommended by physicians to individuals suffering from depression, reports Harvard Health.

A 12-week study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that men who follow the Mediterranean diet may experience improved quality of life. Researchers compared the benefits of befriending therapy to the Mediterranean diet on mental health. The study included 72 men suffering from moderate to severe depression, those who followed the Mediterranean diet reported higher quality of life than those going through befriending therapy.

A 2019 analysis of 41 observational studies also found an association between the Mediterranean diet and improved symptoms of depression — the diet was linked to a 33% lowered risk of depression. Researchers noted that more evidence is needed to determine why the Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced depression risk.

3. May reduce cognitive decline

Research shows eating a Mediterranean diet may slow cognitive decline and help prevent demential and Alzheimer’s diseases.

“There is growing evidence that what we eat can impact our brains as we age,” says Claire Sexton, the Chicago-based director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, per Everyday Health. “Generally speaking, it is best to eat a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fats and high in vegetables and fruits.”

In a recent study, researchers followed more than 60,000 individuals for roughly nine years in search of a link between diet and cognitive decline. The research suggests that those who follow the Mediterranean diet have lowered dementia risk.

Another study, published in the journal of Frontiers in Nutrition, reviewed the impact of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive function. Researchers concluded that “higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with slower rates of cognitive decline, reduced conversion to Alzheimer’s disease, and improvements in cognitive function.”

4. Improves sleep

Improved sleep may also be an benefit of following the Mediterranean diet. A 2022 review researched the impact of the Mediterranean diet on quality of sleep. Researchers found that greater adherence to the diet is linked to improved sleep quantity and quality.

“Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been demonstrated to improve sleep, are also abundant in the Mediterranean diet,” says Denise Pate, a board-certified physician and Medical Director with Medical Offices of Manhattan, per Healthline. “These fatty acids can aid in regulating the body’s melatonin production, a hormone that is essential for controlling sleep.”

5. May increase lifespan

In the long term, following the Mediterranean diet may increase your lifespan.

“The Mediterranean diet is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, which are all rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” Pate told Healthline. “These foods have been linked to reduced inflammation, improved immune function, and a lower risk of chronic diseases.”

In a 36-year study, published by the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2023, researchers followed the diets of more than 75,000 women and 44,000 men. The study notes that the Mediterranean diet is one of few diets associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality.

A study published in the British Medical Journal looked at telomere length in more than 4,000 healthy women following the Mediterranean diet. Longer telomeres are associated with greater protection against chronic disease and early death. The study found that women who more closely followed the Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres.