Diets Decoded: The Mediterranean Diet

Is the Mediterranean Diet healthy?

We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Most popular healthy diets that are touted for weight loss—from Paleo to Mediterranean and vegetarian—share many of the same basic principles.

All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables. (Again, we’re talking about the ones that fall somewhere on the healthy spectrum, not unhealthy fad diets like, ahem, the Grapefruit Diet.)

However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles.

In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any!) is right for you. We’ll quickly explain the facts and then provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life (with recipe suggestions!).

The One-Liner

The Mediterranean Diet is inspired by the traditional diets of people who live around the Mediterranean sea, particularly in Greece and Southern Italy. It emphasizes plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, plenty of extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh fish.

True followers focus on eating seasonally (although depending on where you live, the seasonal foods available may not exactly be those that are available near the Mediterranean). How you eat also matters: preferably with friends and family while enjoying red wine and each other’s company.

RELATED: Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Which is Healthier?

What You Eat

Tons of fresh veggies, some fruit, whole grains like brown rice, beans, and nuts. Fish and chicken are key, especially flavored with fresh herbs and spices. Dairy is included occasionally—in the form of fresh cheeses and yogurt—as are eggs. While pasta is a staple, it’s usually consumed in small portions at the start of a meal and freshly prepared.

Picture a vibrant Greek salad with greens, juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta tossed in EVOO and herbs and topped with a piece of grilled chicken or fish.

RELATED: 7 Healthy Chicken Dinners That Actually Aren’t Boring

What You Don’t Eat

You generally stay away from processed, packaged foods made with added sugar or refined grains and oils. Red meat is limited to an occasional option (i.e. a few times a month), and you stick to olive oil in lieu of other cooking fats like butter and canola oil.

Pros and Cons

The basics of this diet mirror the basic principles of good nutrition: whole foods, tons of veggies, and healthy fats. (Win, win, win!)

Its health benefits are also the most well-documented (of ALL diets, seriously ) by research studies. It’s particularly powerful when it comes to heart health. It’s been linked to lowering heart disease risk factors like high LDL cholesterol levels and high blood sugar and to reducing heart attacks and death from heart disease. The diet may also protect your brain as you age.

Bonus: the Mediterranean Diet recognizes the importance of enjoying meals (and a really nice bottle of red) with family and friends, which comes with additional mental health benefits.

The only potential con is that it may be hard to recreate while trying to eat locally depending on where you live, and some of the benefits may stem from the broader Mediterranean lifestyle. (In other words, if you can move to a gorgeous, remote Greek island, we highly recommend it.) You can also overdo it: it’s easy to go a little overboard on portion size when picking at olives and cheese while sipping red wine.

3 Mediterranean Diet-Approved Recipes

  1. Broccoli Rabe Pesto Hummus
  2. Salmon and Feta Omelet with Asparagus
  3. Cucumber Feta Greek Yogurt Dip

Next Up: Is the Paleo Diet healthy?


Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Which is Healthier?

When it comes to your health, olive oil and coconut oil are like two of your closest friends.

Olive oil is the friend you’ve known since grade school who’s completely dependable and always supports you. Coconut oil is the new friend you made as an adult who’s always up on the latest trend and exposes you to all kinds of things you didn’t have access to before.

You need both of them, right? But what if your schedule’s gotten really busy and you’ve only got time for one?

Translation: When you reach for a bottle at Trader Joe’s, which should you carry home if your grocery tote is too full for both? (Reminder: We’re talking about olive oil vs. coconut oil, not people.)

Here are the facts on which is healthier: olive oil or coconut oil.

Olive oil vs. Coconut Oil: Fats

Olive oil contains some saturated fat as well as minimal omega-3s and omega-6s, but the star of its fatty acid profile (what a title!) is monounsaturated fat, most of it in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats are linked to decreased risk of high blood pressure and a decrease in LDL (AKA bad) cholesterol, both of which are associated with heart disease.

In fact, research shows olive oil benefits heart health in multiple ways and the evidence that it reduces heart disease and stroke risk is pretty robust.

RELATED: Why Healthy Fats Don’t Make You Fat

Coconut oil, on the other hand, is made up primarily of saturated fat in the form of molecules called medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs). Saturated fat used to be demonized for raising heart disease risk but recent research has changed that thinking, and the saturated fat in coconut oil has actually been found to raise your good (HDL) cholesterol and lower triglycerides (fats in your blood that raise heart disease risk).

MCTs are also quickly metabolized and turned into energy, which means less stored fat—and some research suggests that means coconut oil may be superior for weight loss.

Some preliminary evidence even suggests coconut oil’s fat profile may also help prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease (because of the way MCTs are broken down into molecules the brain can use as fuel), but the research is far from conclusive.

Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Antioxidants

Olive oil has a reputation for being rich in antioxidants for a reason. It’s filled with bioavailable phenolic compounds that have been found to have multiple, varied positive health effects like decreasing oxidative damage to DNA and lowering inflammatory markers.

RELATED: Why Is Inflammation Such a Buzzed-About Health Term?

Coconut oil has been linked to some antioxidant activity, but not to the extent of olive. It does, however, contain some anti-bacterial compounds that play a role in preventing acne, boosting immune function and fighting infection.

Olive Oil Vs. Coconut Oil: Quality

Finally, a science break (sort of)! There are a few factors that don’t necessarily have to do with straight-up nutrition facts that are worth considering.

First, it may seem like olive oil is significantly cheaper than coconut, tempting you to opt for olive. That is sometimes true, but fraud is also rampant in the olive oil industry. So, if an imported bottle of EVOO is crazy cheap, that’s probably because it’s watered down with fake, or heavily processed, oils. Opt for extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive and virgin, cold-pressed coconut—and do some homework first on brands you can trust.

You may have also heard that because olive oil has a lower smoke point, you shouldn’t use it for cooking at higher heats because it will break down and become carcinogenic. Most research actually shows olive oil is very resistant to oxidation even at high heats (likely due to those incredible antioxidants!). Coconut oil does have a higher smoke point if you want to err on the side of caution and primarily use olive oil for cold foods and coconut for hot.

RELATED: Does Grilling Make Food Carcinogenic?

The Bottom Line

When it comes to research-backed health benefits, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil wins. Especially when you consider it’s a cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet, which has been studied at length and is linked to reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, and more.

But coconut oil is amazing for your health, too. It has multiple benefits—for your heart, weight, and more—they’re just not as well-studied yet. It also wins when it comes to versatility. (You can use it outside the kitchen for dental health, to take off makeup and moisturize, and so much more.)

At the end of the day, it’s nice to have one option for when you want savory, Mediterranean flavor and another when you’re craving tropical and sweet. Just look for extra-virgin and cold-pressed varieties from trusted brands, and stock your pantry with both options.