Mediterranean Diet vs. Other Diets: Which Is Best?

orzo salad with tomatoes, basil, and chicken

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If you’re currently researching diets to try, you probably stumbled across a ton of options. From the keto diet to the flexitarian diet to the Mediterranean diet, it’s hard to sift through the hype and nail down which one to choose.

Keep in mind there’s no one diet that works for everyone. When searching for the right diet, it’s important to choose something that works for your lifestyle, that promotes good health, and that’s feasible to stick to long-term. 

The Mediterranean diet is a well-researched eating plan that may check off these criteria for many people. This diet clearly overlaps with most USDA Dietary Guidelines, perhaps with a few additional specifications, and offers some advantages compared to other popular diets.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Mediterranean Diet number 1 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 4.2/5.

USDA Recommendations

The Mediterranean diet is quite similar to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, with the exception of a few slightly stricter guidelines.

Food Groups

The Mediterranean diet includes all five food groups that are present in the USDA Guidelines. These include fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and grains. 

The Mediterranean diet does offer additional guidelines within some of these groups, though. For example, while the USDA recommends at least half your grains come from whole grains, the Mediterranean diet recommends that all grains are whole grains (with the exception of occasional meals).

Similarly, while the USDA treats all types of protein equally, the Mediterranean diet specifies that certain proteins, like red meat, should only be consumed occasionally. Other animal proteins should be used in smaller portions as well.

What Experts Say

"In a traditional Mediterranean diet, animal products are used as more of a garnish. For example, instead of having a large steak with a side of mashed potatoes and a side of peas and carrots, a Mediterranean approach would be to make vegetable and beef kebabs served over a whole grain and nut pilaf, or a whole grain pasta dish served with a tomato sauce with a mixture of mushrooms or lentils and a small amount of ground beef for flavor."

Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, Director of Nutrition for Oldways

These differences are not overly restrictive, but may prove difficult if your current diet is far from meeting the guidelines.

Calories

There is no specific number of calories recommended on the Mediterranean diet. Since it’s an eating pattern rather than a structured diet, the focus is on high-quality, nutrient-dense foods, rather than counting calories.

That said, calorie balance is still a key factor in weight management. You can find USDA Guidelines for calories based on age, height, gender, and activity level. You can also try using our calorie goal calculator to get an estimate. These calorie levels can easily be applied within the framework of a Mediterranean style diet. 

If you’re following the Mediterranean diet but find yourself gaining weight, try tracking your calorie intake for a few days to see if it’s comparable to these recommendations. Make small tweaks to adjust as necessary.

Variety

One major similarity between both the Mediterranean diet and the USDA Dietary Guidelines? An emphasis on variety! Both meal planning approaches encourage you to include a variety of produce and mix up your choices regularly.

For example, do you always stick with an iceberg lettuce side salad? Try changing it up with romaine, spinach, arugula, or another leafy green.

Is your go-to side at dinner a bag of frozen broccoli? Try grabbing a different frozen veggie at the store, or think about new ways to prepare broccoli-like roasting it or making a soup.

Not only will this ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs, but it will also expand your palate and make mealtime more fun.

Similar Diets

The Mediterranean diet shares similar features to other popular diets but offers more flexibility than most. It’s also extremely well-researched, which is uncommon for many popular diet plans. Here’s a quick breakdown of how it compares.

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: This diet is rich in plant-based components like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil. It includes all foods, though it specifies that red meat and added sugar should only be used occasionally. When followed, it should be easy to meet your nutrient needs.
  • Health benefits: Perhaps the most well-researched of any diet, it is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
  • Weight loss: The Mediterranean diet has been found to help with weight loss and weight management—even though it is high in calorie-dense foods like olive oil and nuts.
  • Sustainability: This diet is healthy and feasible to follow for life. If you're a heavy red meat eater you may struggle, but even a modified version with higher amounts of red meat has been shown to improve health markers.

Flexitarian Diet

  • General nutrition: The flexitarian diet (also known as a flexible vegetarian) includes all food groups but recommends limiting animal proteins. It is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, emphasizing lots of produce, whole grains, and healthy oils.
  • Health benefits: Studies have linked a flexitarian diet to lower risk of diabetes, and the balanced nature of the diet likely has other chronic disease prevention benefits.
  • Weight loss: Several studies have shown that semi-vegetarian diets, like the flexitarian diet, are associated with lower body weight or BMI.
  • Sustainability: Just like the Mediterranean diet, most people should be able to follow it long-term. If you enjoy high amounts of animal products you may struggle, but the plan is quite flexible to allow for following it in a way that works for you.

Keto Diet

  • General nutrition: While many think of the Mediterranean diet as being a higher fat diet (around 35-40 percent, due to high olive oil and nut consumption), the keto diet contains far more fat (approximately 75 percent). The keto diet also severely limits carbohydrates, meaning foods like whole grains, legumes, and most fruits are off-limits. These severe restrictions can make it difficult to meet nutritional needs.
  • Health benefits: The keto diet's efficacy is well-established for epilepsy. However, for other medical conditions, the benefits remain uncertain. For people with certain medical conditions, like pregnancy or type 1 diabetes, it can actually be dangerous to start a keto diet.
  • Weight loss: Several studies have shown that a ketogenic diet helps patients lose weight. One systematic review found that at one year, those on a keto style diet lost about 4 pounds more than those on a low-fat diet. However, there is little long term research on these outcomes.
  • Sustainability: You might find it quite challenging to stick with the keto diet long term, as it's far more restrictive than something like the Mediterranean diet.

DASH Diet

  • General nutrition: The DASH diet, more formally known as Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is based on eating primarily fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and portion-controlled lean protein. Some of these recommendations are similar to the Mediterranean diet (i.e lots of produce), but DASH places greater emphasis on low-fat dairy and protein. There is also a sodium limit.
  • Health benefits: Research has shown the DASH diet lowers blood pressure and improves cholesterol.
  • Weight loss: A 2016 review article in Obesity Reviews concluded that the DASH diet promoted weight loss and improved BMI. Calorie-controlled DASH diets led to even greater results.
  • Sustainability: The DASH diet is another diet, like the Mediterranean diet, that can be feasible to follow for life. However, it does require more planning to meet specific food group servings and sodium restrictions, which may prove challenging for those who aren't highly motivated.
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Article Sources

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