Numerous studies over the last decade suggest a Mediterranean diet – rich in fish, fruits, nuts and olive oil – may be a winning solution for people with diabetes.

Research shows the diet may improve blood glucose control, reduce the need for medication and reduce systemic inflammation among diabetic patients. Even more exciting is the research proposing that following a Mediterranean diet can reduce your risk of developing diabetes later in life.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high intake of cereals, vegetables, fruits, nuts and olive oil; a moderate intake of fish and alcohol, mostly wine; and a low intake of dairy products, meats and sweets. A recent study among 418 high-risk diabetes patients in Spain found a 53 percent decreased risk of developing diabetes among those who followed a Mediterranean diet with increased olive oil or nuts versus those who followed a traditional low-fat diet. The EPIC study, of nearly 16,000 Europeans, found that the more closely individuals followed a Mediterranean diet the less chance they had of developing diabetes. So, what is the connection?

Healthy fats

The Mediterranean diet typically includes about 35 to 40 percent of calories from fat, with the majority coming from unsaturated fats found in olive oil and nuts. Although this is well above the U.S. recommended 30 percent of calories from fat, the Women’s Health Initiative study, of 48,800 postmenopausal women, showed that a low-fat diet of 29 percent of calories was ineffective in reducing risk of diabetes. Another study found that by replacing saturated fats (found in meat and dairy) with mono- and poly-unsaturated fat, (found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish) participants showed improved glycemic control, decreased insulin resistance and reduced risk of developing diabetes. 

Fat also plays an important role in keeping us full and feeling satisfied after a meal. For this reason, palatability and satiety often make the Mediterranean diet more enjoyable than a low-fat diet recommended to prevent chronic disease.

Carbohydrates: grains and legumes

Research has shown that high intake of whole grain cereals and bread is associated with a 20 to 30 percent reduction of developing diabetes. The fiber found in these grains keeps us full longer by slowing carbohydrate absorption into the blood stream and preventing the spikes and falls in blood glucose associated with diabetes. Carbohydrate-rich legumes such as chick peas, beans, peas and lentils, which are considered low glycemic-index foods, can also be beneficial in preventing diabetes and controlling blood sugar levels among diabetics. The abundance of whole grains found in the traditional Mediterranean diet not only provides fiber, but also a melange of phytochemicals, fiber, phenols, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds, all of which benefit health.

The Mediterranean lifestyle

The individual components of the Mediterranean diet will not work miracles on their own, but must be paired with other healthy lifestyle habits. Around the sun-kissed lands of the Mediterranean Sea, you’ll find locals savoring every bite of the regional foods paired with good wine and even better company. The event of dining is not one of snacking on a burger wrapped in paper from your driver’s seat during rush-hour traffic. Mindful eating, quality ingredients and moderate daily exercise permeate the lifestyle.

Want to try a Mediterranean diet? Here are a few ways you can incorporate its mainstays into your lifestyle:

  • Eat more healthy plant-based fats such as avocados, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts and peanuts (unsalted, dry-roasted).
  • Minimize saturated and trans-fats by switching to low-fat dairy products, using olive oil instead of butter and choosing fresh over packaged foods.
  • Consume more healthy proteins like turkey, tofu, chicken, kidney beans, chickpeas, quinoa and fish while minimizing red meat and processed meat.
  • Increase your fiber by adding a high-fiber cereal to breakfast, choosing whole-wheat pasta and bread over white flour products and increasing fruit and vegetable intake.
  • Minimize simple sugars by decreasing your intake of soft drinks, sweets and calorie-dense fruit juices.
  • Enjoy moderate consumption of red wine with meals.
  • Remember to slow down and savor your meals (hopefully with beloved friends and family) in order to prevent overeating and poor digestion.

Always remember to consult your dietitian and/or physician before making any changes to your diet as a means of preventing or controlling your diabetes.

Have you tried the Mediterranean diet? Thinking about it? Share your experiences in this related discussion thread.