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5 Mediterranean Diet Health Benefits That Make It One of the Best Ways to Eat

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The Mediterranean diet, with its focus on healthy fats, seafood, and lots of veggies and fruit, has long been praised for its ability to reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease. But that's not all it can do: Eating this way can contribute to weight loss even if you don't actively try to restrict calories, according to a study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. (Hallelujah! Here's why restrictive diets aren't all that great, anyway.)

Researchers divided more than 7,000 people from 11 Spanish hospitals into three groups. One group ate a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, another stuck to a version of the Mediterranean diet that was heavy on nuts, and the last group ate a low-fat diet. The two groups following the Mediterranean diets didn't restrict calories. After participants stuck to the diets for five years, researchers found that while people in each group lost weight, the olive oil group lost the most—nearly 2 pounds on average.

Even if these numbers on their own aren't all that shocking, this means you shouldn't fear fat (well, not all fat—trans fats are still the bad guys). For proof, researchers point to the rise of the low-fat diet fad that we've seen during the last 40 years. During that same time span, obesity levels have continued to rise. (Grab these 11 high-fat foods a healthy diet should always include the next time you're grocery shopping.)

Eating a Mediterranean-style diet—filling up on whole foods instead of processed ones—has also been shown to help the body in many other ways. Here, five Mediterranean diet health benefits worth knowing. (While we're at it, here are 50 easy Mediterranean diet recipes and meal ideas.)

1. Heart Protection

A 2015 study from The American College of Cardiology followed more than 2,500 Greek adults for more than 10 years. Those who followed the Mediterranean diet were 47 percent less likely to develop heart disease compared to their peers who weren't loyal to a Mediterranean diet meal plan. Interestingly, the researchers found that sticking to the diet offered even more protection than physical activity. That said, you obviously shouldn't skip your workouts. (Related: Science Found the Best Workout to Overcome Your Weight-Loss Plateau)

2. Better Brain Power

If you want to keep your mind sharp, reach for whole grains, nuts, fruits, and veggies—all staples of the Mediterranean diet—instead of red meat and processed foods. A 2016 review of 18 articles published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that eating whole foods and healthy fats can improve cognitive function, slow the rate at which the brain declines, and reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease. These impressive Mediterranean diet health benefits weren't just for the retired crowd, either—researchers saw cognitive improvements in young people, too.

3. Weight Loss

Many studies have focused on the Mediterranean diet's ability to help people drop unwanted pounds. A 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders found that a Mediterranean diet plan contributed to participants' weight loss of about 4 pounds more than that of participants in the control group. The results were even more significant when the participants bumped up their exercise regimen and stuck with the diet for longer than six months. (Related: 10 Mediterranean Diet Breakfast Ideas to Make You Look Forward to Morning)

4. Chronic Disease Prevention

A 2017 paper published in Nutrition Today explored the ways the Mediterranean diet is linked to the prevention of chronic diseases. For one, those who follow it tend to have less body fat and a lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Second, eating this way and loading up on extra-virgin olive oil can also slash the risk of developing diabetes (by 40 percent for individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease). But the Mediterranean diet health benefits don't stop there: It's also been shown to protect against cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, and other cancers.

5. Increased Longevity

Given all of these Mediterranean diet health benefits, it's no wonder the eating style could help you live longer. A 2014 study published in The BMJ found cellular differences between women who followed the Mediterranean diet plan and those who ate more meat and dairy, specifically regarding the length of telomeres, which are DNA sequences found on the end of chromosomes. The length of telomeres has an interesting relationship with aging: Short telomeres have been linked to a shorter life, while long telomeres may equate to a longer life, and these Mediterranean-diet followers had longer telomeres. (Convinced to give it a go? Try this seven-day Mediterranean diet the experts think everyone should follow.)

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