Can the Mediterranean Diet Lower Your Cholesterol?

The Mediterranean diet is a dietary pattern that's widespread in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This diet emphasizes the consumption of lean meats, healthy fats, whole grains, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and moderate amounts of red wine.

Selection of Mediterranean style dishes
Will Heap / Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Characteristics of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is a balanced diet containing a variety of foods, and it can be easily followed.

Key characteristics of the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Foods high in monounsaturated fats—including nuts, seeds, and olive oil
  • Foods high in legumes, including lentils and beans
  • High-fiber grains, including whole grain, oatmeal, and barley
  • Meals high in fresh fruits and vegetable content
  • Use of leans cuts of poultry in some foods
  • Moderate consumption of fish—including fish high in healthy omega-3 fats, such as salmon and anchovy
  • Low to moderate consumption of red wine
  • Refined sugars are used sparingly in meals
  • Lower consumption of red meat
  • Low to moderate use of dairy products, including milk, yogurt, and certain cheeses, such as Parmesan and feta cheeses

Mediterranean Diet and Lower Cholesterol

Multiple studies have examined the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cholesterol and triglycerides—and the results appear promising. Studies have lasted between 4 weeks and 4 years and have included healthy participants, individuals with high lipid (fat) levels, or individuals with other medical conditions.

Most of the studies have focused on certain aspects of the Mediterranean diet, such as the consumption of fruits and veggies, using high amounts of virgin olive oil (up to one liter per week), or eating nuts (up to 30 grams a day, or two handfuls). Most studies showed that the Mediterranean diet can modestly lower lipid levels, and a few studies did not show a significant effect.

For example, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the harmful type of cholesterol, can be lowered by an average of 10% and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the healthy type of cholesterol, can be increased by up to about 5%. Triglycerides and total cholesterol also appeared to be slightly decreased in some studies. Oxidation of LDL, which can promote the formation of atherosclerosis, was also reduced in some studies.

Additionally, some of these studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet may be superior to a regular, low-fat diet. In one study it appeared that cholesterol was lowered significantly more with a Mediterranean diet than with a low-fat diet. Studies have also noted those following a Mediterranean diet have a lowered risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

The Bottom Line

In addition to lowering lipids, the Mediterranean diet also appears to be beneficial for overall health. For instance, this diet has also been studied for its ability to lower blood pressure, lower blood glucose, and reduce the incidence of asthma.

At a closer glance, the Mediterranean diet closely mirrors the essentials of a lipid-lowering diet. So, if you are looking for a diet to lower your lipids, the Mediterranean diet may be a good option for you.

This diet plan includes cholesterol-friendly ingredients such as:

  • Whole grains, produce, and nuts
  • Phytosterol-rich foods, including nuts, vegetables, legumes, and fruit
  • Unsaturated fats that are found in nuts, fatty fish, and olive oil

The vast majority of Mediterranean diet studies over the past two decades have pointed to a positive impact on heart health. This is why the Mediterranean diet is one of the two diets strongly recommended by the American Heart Association (the other is the DASH diet).

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5 Sources
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