The Mediterranean Diet May Be as Beneficial as Walking 4,000 More Steps Per Day, a New Study Suggests

But that doesn't mean that you should retire your sneakers…

Fad diets and celebrity detox trends come and go, but some things stay as reliable as an Ina Garten recipe or a favorite pair of jeans.

While it might not be the most sensational diet to tout in TV or social media ads, the Mediterranean diet has reigned supreme as the best diet overall for six years running in the U.S News & World Report rankings. This year, the flexible eating plan also took home the trophy for the Best Diet for Healthy Eating and the Best Plant-Based Diet. It also tied for first for the Best Family-Friendly Diet and Best Diet for Bone and Joint Health, and just so happens to be one of the best diets for the brain to help prevent dementia.

And a new study suggests it's such a boon for your well-being, in fact, that it delivers health benefits on par with a two mile stroll. That's right; according to a study published April 28, 2023 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), eating a Mediterranean diet may be as beneficial for health as walking an additional 4,000 steps per day.

Ahead, learn more about how the researchers landed at this conclusion, then study up on easy ways to make your day more in line with the diet (no matter where you live).

What This Mediterranean Diet Study Found

Inspired by the fact that folks who exercise the same amount still have differences in fitness, a team of scientists, including Michael Mi, MD, a cardiologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, set out to estimate the impact of diet on health factors that are often impacted by physical activity.

To do so, Dr. Mi and co. analyzed health data from 2,380 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study (a multigenerational database of individuals who signed up to share information for health research). The average age was 54, and just over half (54%) of the study participants were women.

Each person completed three tasks:

  • A VO2 max exercise test via a cycle ergometer, which measures the maximum rate of oxygen used during a workout.
  • The Harvard semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire, which estimates approximate intake of 126 foods/drinks, from never to more than six servings per day.
  • A fasting blood glucose test, designed to track the amount and type of amino acids produced during digestion and released into blood during exercise. These can be linked to favorable or poor diet and fitness habits.

Overall diet quality was evaluated by the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI; 0 to 110) and Mediterranean-style Diet Score (MDS; 0 to 25). Higher numbers on both indicate a higher-quality diet, including produce, whole grains, fish and seafood, healthy fats, nuts and seeds—with limited red meat and alcohol consumption.

The average AHEI was about 67 and the average MDS was about 12. Racking up just 13 more points on the AHEI appeared to result in a 5% higher VO2 maximum, while an increase in 5 points on the MDS was linked to a 4% higher VO2 max.

After taking into account age, sex, daily calorie consumption, body mass index (BMI), smoking status, cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes status and approximate current cardiorespiratory capacity, "in middle-aged adults, healthy dietary patterns were strongly and favorably associated with fitness,"Dr. Mi says in a press release related to the research. "The relationship was similar in women and men, and more pronounced in those under 54 years of age compared to older adults."

The blood test-tracked metabolite data "suggests that eating healthily is associated with better metabolic health, which could be one possible way that it leads to improved fitness and ability to exercise," Mi adds. "A Mediterranean-style diet with fresh, whole foods and minimal processed foods, red meat and alcohol is a great place to start."

a photo of two people walking outside
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That being said, this was a fairly small observational study, and it doesn't prove any cause-and-effect relationship.

In other words, "we cannot conclude that eating well causes better fitness, or exclude the possibility of a reverse relationship, i.e., that fit individuals choose to eat healthily," Dr. Mi continues.

It's highly likely that this is a cyclical relationship. Fueling wisely helps provide enough energy to conquer your workout, and moving more might inspire you to reach for certain foods and drinks.

Even though the CDC estimates that the average American adult walks 4,000 steps per day and the old "10,000 steps per day" goal is being called into question, walking is still a fantastic form of exercise. Physical activity delivers its own array of health risk-reducing benefits. The gains begin after a mere 2 minutes of stepping things up. Try our walking plan to help you reduce stress (because who doesn't need that?!).

The Bottom Line

Over time, consuming a healthy Mediterranean diet might deliver health and longevity benefits about on par with walking an extra 4,000 steps per day, a new health study suggests. To amplify the health gains, pair a well-balanced, Mediterranean diet-style menu with your favorite form of exercise. (BTW, this is how often you should exercise each week, according to the World Health Organization.)

More of a lifestyle than a "diet" per se, the Mediterranean diet doesn't come with a long list of food "dos" and "don'ts." That means the same principles can be adapted to fit a wide variety of budgets, cultures and food preferences—and there's zero macro tracking or calorie counting required. Since this is the case, the whole foods-forward diet is one of the most sustainable eating strategies too.

To make your meal plan more aligned with the Mediterranean diet, try these EatingWell dietitian-recommended strategies:

Craving a bit more direction? Check out our easy Mediterranean diet meal plan for beginners.

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