What Is the Mediterranean Diet—and Is It Safe for Older Adults?

By Alisa Hrustic |

This eating style gets hyped for a reason. Here’s how to decide if it’s right for you.

Dinner for two on a sunset background

The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating based on the traditional foods (and drinks) of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Italy, and Morocco.

“Way of eating” is the key phrase there, because unlike most diet plans, this one favors general guidelines and recommendations over strict rules. “It’s more a lifestyle,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. “It’s what we should all refer to as well-balanced, healthy eating.”

What exactly does that mean for your grocery list? The Mediterranean eating style can be broken into the following basic guidelines:

  • Eat mostly: Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil
  • Eat in moderation: Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt
  • Eat rarely: Red meat
  • Don’t eat: Sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils, and other highly processed foods
  • Drink: Mostly water, plus moderate amounts of red wine (one glass per day is encouraged)

But Mediterranean isn’t just about eating. This lifestyle plan also includes regular physical activity and sharing meals with family and friends.

What Are the Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet?

Numerous studies have linked the Mediterranean eating style to better heart health, a sharper mind, and a longer life. And it’s never too late to reap the benefits.

One study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that older adults who followed a Mediterranean-style diet were 35 percent less likely to score poorly on memory and attention tests compared with those who didn’t follow the diet. They were also more likely to be active, have lower blood pressure, and feel happier.

Why the brain boost? The Mediterranean diet packs in beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which may help fight inflammation and improve the way your brain cells communicate, the study authors say.

What’s more, an analysis in the same journal found that a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of frailty in older adults. Frailty is a catch-all term for various age-related health problems, including increased risk of falls, fractures, muscle weakness, and dementia.

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Are There Any Risks to the Mediterranean Diet?

The biggest thing to watch out for is that daily glass of red wine, Gans says. This is true for two reasons:

  1. As you get older, your body can’t process booze like it used to, meaning you’ll feel the effects a lot quicker. This can increase your risk of falling and getting hurt.
  2. You might be taking medications that don’t mix well with alcohol. In fact, a study from the National Institutes of Health found that nearly 80 percent of older adults who drink alcohol use medications that don’t mix well with it, including blood thinners, blood pressure drugs, pain relievers, or antibiotics.

Talk with your doctor before you start enjoying a nightly glass of wine. While most healthy adults should do fine with one 5-ounce serving, your doctor knows your medical history and can recommend a limit that’s best for you.

Also worth noting: If you suffer from digestive conditions, such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance, a traditional Mediterranean eating style may set you up for stomach problems. Gans warns that since the diet includes dairy and whole grains, it can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

That doesn’t mean you can’t adjust the diet to fit your needs. If you need to nix dairy or whole grains, simply make an effort to eat the other good-for-you foods included in the diet, Gans says. “This will still serve as a foundation for an overall healthy plate.”

Ready to Try the Mediterranean Diet? Start Here

Instead of overhauling your diet all at once, start with a few simple swaps. Here’s what Gans suggests:

  1. If you don’t already eat fish, try swapping some into one meal per week in place of meat. Even canned salmon or sardines will do, she says. Eventually work up to at least two 4-ounce servings of fish per week. A 4-ounce serving is about the size of a checkbook.
  2. Instead of white rice and bread, opt for quinoa or whole grains, such as whole wheat bread or brown rice.
  3. Start each dinner with a salad drizzled in a bit of extra virgin olive oil. It’s an easy way to bump up your daily dose of vegetables and healthy fats, Gans says.
  4. Swap out any processed snacks for fruit and nuts.

Small changes like this add up to make a big difference. Plus, they’re more sustainable.

“Never try to revamp your diet in 24 hours, or even a week,” Gans says. “Habits that you’ve developed over years are hard to change.”

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