The diet may also have profound health benefits during pregnancy, said Dr. Anum Sohail Minhas, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. In a recent study of nearly 7,800 women published in December, researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely around the time they conceived and during early pregnancy had about a 21 percent reduced risk of any pregnancy complications, such as pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes or preterm birth.
“There definitely seems to be a protective effect,” Dr. Minhas said.
On its own, though, the Mediterranean diet isn’t a panacea, Dr. Heffron said — it won’t eliminate your chances of developing cardiovascular disease, and it won’t cure a disease, either. It’s important that people also pay attention to other tenets of good heart health, like getting regular exercise and adequate sleep and not smoking.
Will the Mediterranean diet help with weight loss?
The diet can be conducive to weight loss, Ms. Zumpano said, but you’ll still need to pay attention to calories.
“Nutrient-rich foods aren’t necessarily low in calories,” said Dr. Heffron, who noted that the diet includes foods like olive oil and nuts, which are heart-healthy yet high in calories and can lead to weight gain if consumed in large portions. But if you’re changing your diet from one that is rich in calories, saturated fats and added sugars, for instance, with one that prioritizes vegetables, fruits and leaner proteins, that can result in some weight loss, he said.
The Mediterranean diet is not meant to be a hack for rapid weight loss, though. Rather, it should inspire a long-term shift in eating behavior. In one study of more than 30,000 people living in Italy, for instance, researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely for about 12 years were less likely to become overweight or obese than those who followed the diet less closely. A smaller study, published in 2020, enrolled 565 adults who had intentionally lost 10 percent or more of their body weight in the year prior. It found that those who reported adhering to the Mediterranean diet closely were twice as likely to maintain their weight loss as those who did not closely follow the diet.
How long do you need to follow the Mediterranean diet to gain benefits?
If you’re just starting to follow the Mediterranean diet, limited evidence suggests that you may notice some cognitive improvements — including in attention, alertness and contentment, according to one review of studies published in 2021 — within the first 10 days or so. But for there to be sustained, long-term payoffs in terms of heart health, people need to stick with it, Ms. Zumpano said, ideally for their whole lives.
That being said, she added, the diet allows for some flexibility; the occasional cake or steak won’t undo its overall benefits.