The Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

The positive health benefits of a Mediterranean diet are well established: The PREDIMED study was launched in 2003 with the aim of assessing the role of a Mediterranean diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease in asymptomatic patients with high cardiovascular risk. Data stemming from this study clearly implicate the diet in reducing cardiovascular risk via a variety of mechanisms, with participants adhering to the diet reported to have an approximately 30% reduced risk for a cardiovascular event.

The Mediterranean diet consists primarily of plant-based foods including fruit, vegetables, pasta, and rice. It emphasizes replacing butter with “healthier fats”, using herbs and spices for flavor instead of salt, limiting the consumption of red meat, and eating fish and poultry at least twice a week. The PREDIMED study more specifically explored the effects of this type of diet when supplemented with olive oil or tree nuts. Study participants were provided with extra-virgin olive oil and a variety of nuts, in addition to food shopping lists, menus, recipes, dietary training group sessions, and access to a dietician.

Secondarily, the PREDIMED study explored the role of a Mediterranean diet on heart failure, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Interestingly, research suggests that in addition to a providing cardiovascular protection, this diet may also play a key role in protecting against a variety of brain disorders including age-related cognitive decline and depression.

Data from Elena Martínez-Lapiscina and colleagues further indicate that the supplemented diet results in an increase in cognitive function for patients with cardiovascular risk factors when compared to those patients on a low-fat diet. More specifically, researchers examined cognitive performance as indicated on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) and the Clock Drawing Test (CDT) after 6.5 years of regulated diet. The results show that those patients consuming Mediterranean-based diets perform better on these tests thus indicating an improvement in cognitive function.

These data are promising and further support a case for a well balanced diet in the protection against disease. They also present an opportunity to narrow down the active compounds in each diet that most notably effect the results and isolate them for further study and/or drug development.


Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Covas, M., Corella, D., Arós, F., Gómez-Gracia, E., Ruiz-Gutiérrez, V., Fiol, M., Lapetra, J., Lamuela-Raventos, R., Serra-Majem, L., Pintó, X., Basora, J., Muñoz, M., Sorlí, J., Martínez, J., & Martínez-González, M. (2013). Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet New England Journal of Medicine, 368 (14), 1279-1290 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1200303

Martínez-Lapiscina EH, Clavero P, Toledo E, Estruch R, Salas-Salvadó J, San Julián B, Sanchez-Tainta A, Ros E, Valls-Pedret C, & Martinez-Gonzalez MA (2013). Mediterranean diet improves cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomised trial. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry PMID: 23670794

Sánchez-Villegas A, Galbete C, Martinez-González MA, Martinez JA, Razquin C, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, Buil-Cosiales P, & Martí A (2011). The effect of the Mediterranean diet on plasma brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomized trial. Nutritional neuroscience, 14 (5), 195-201 PMID: 22005283

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Norell Hadzimichalis, PhD

Norell Hadzimichalis, PhD, is a trained molecular biologist with postdoctoral research experience in a prominent neuroscience laboratory. She holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She has authored and co-authored multiple peer reviewed research and review articles in journals including Schizophrenia Research, Brain Research, and the Journal of Neuroscience. Her current interests are in commercializing basic scientific findings and exploring methods of moving research from the benchside to the bedside.
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