Study: Mediterranean Diet Could Help Reduce Type 2 Diabetes Risk

  • A new study found the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • The diet focuses on fiber and heart-healthy fats, nutrients needed for type 2 diabetes prevention.
  • Experts note that while a Mediterranean diet isn’t guaranteed to ward off type 2 diabetes, the eating pattern is a nutritious option with many health benefits.

New research found the Mediterranean diet could help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The Mediterranean diet quickly gained popularity due to its well-known health benefits. The eating pattern is a favorite amongst doctors and registered dietitians, not only for its emphasis on a variety of nutritious foods but also for its flexible and sustainable characteristics.

A new study examined the link between the Mediterranean diet and type 2 diabetes. The findings suggest that the Mediterranean diet may help reduce type 2 diabetes even better than originally thought.

Woman chopping tomatoes

Woman chopping tomatoes

Getty Images / Kristina Vianello

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

Inspired by the typical foods and eating habits of southern Italy, southern Spain, and Greece, the Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean proteins and fish, and heart-healthy fats.

While called a “diet,” the Mediterranean eating style does not adhere to strict rules or regulations and includes most foods, making this a highly sustainable way of eating.

As this eating pattern has gained popularity, researchers have found that individuals from the originating countries and those who emulate their eating habits have a lower risk of chronic disease.

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The Mediterranean Diet and Type 2 Diabetes

The Mediterranean diet is a commonly recommended eating pattern for the prevention of type 2 diabetes and is associated with a decreased risk.

Nita Forouhi, MBBS, PhD, one of the authors of this study, noted the previous research on the Mediterranean diet and type 2 diabetes was based on subjective reporting. In other words, it relied on asking study participants about their diet—human memory can be prone to reporting errors.

“We wanted to improve the assessment of dietary intakes by using objective markers of foods that can be measured in the blood,” Dr. Forouhi explained.

The team of researchers collected data on 340,234 individuals living in eight European countries. They used blood carotenoids and fatty acids in order to assess adherence to the Mediterranean diet.

“We focused on these lipid-soluble nutritional biomarkers because they can reflect dietary exposures over a period of weeks or months prior to the blood draw”, Dr. Forouhi clarified.

In other words, these biomarkers allowed the researchers to ascertain if the Mediterranean diet was habitual for the study participants.

The study results showed the Mediterranean eating pattern was positively associated with a lower risk of new-onset type 2 diabetes. The results also indicated a stronger relationship with the use of nutritional biomarkers than with self-report questionnaires.

Based on these findings, following a Mediterranean style of eating may be even more beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes than originally thought and reinforces the evidence for this recommendation. Additionally, the study found that even moderate adherence to the eating pattern results in health benefits.

“The Mediterranean diet is high in whole grains, fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, lean proteins, and heart-healthy fats. These foods specifically are high in nutrients that are great for type 2 diabetes like fiber and whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and heart-healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds,” agreed Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, a dietitian and diabetes educator in northern Virginia. 

Yet no study is without limitations. As is common in nutrition research, this study was observational and did not control for all factors that are related to the risk of disease. The authors took great care to isolate the association of the biomarker score with disease risk, however, it is almost impossible to account for all other lifestyle and medical factors.

“The study does not allow us to draw conclusions as strong as to say that the Mediterranean diet is a causal factor in lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. That said, our results are consistent with other lines of evidence and reinforce the Mediterranean diet as a dietary strategy for the prevention of type 2 diabetes,” explained Dr. Forouhi.

The Mediterranean Diet and Gut Health

Another rapidly growing area of research is the relationship between type 2 diabetes and the gut microbiome.

“The diet encourages several plant-based foods that provide fiber, which changes gut bacteria and may aid in blood sugar management,” Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition, told Health.

Andrews added, “These plant-based foods provide antioxidants that may have anti-inflammatory properties that aid in diabetes prevention.”

Not only can the Mediterranean diet give your gut health a boost, but it’s also known to be associated with many other health benefits as well. Andrews noted a “reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It may also aid in reducing the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer.”

There are many ways to adopt and follow a Mediterranean eating pattern. Consider starting out with one or two changes at a time. Thomason suggested setting small, achievable goals like “incorporating one fruit or vegetable per day or swapping refined grains for whole grains at least half the time.”

Lastly, make the Mediterranean diet your own to fit into your lifestyle.

“There are actually 23 total countries in the Mediterranean ranging from Italy and Greece to middle eastern countries and northern parts of Africa,” Thomas concluded. “You can pull from any of these cuisines to create Mediterranean habits!”

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