Are you interested in following the Mediterranean Diet, but also curious if you will have to give up coffee?
The Mediterranean Diet includes an abundance of anti-inflammatory foods and is also known for its health benefits spanning from heart and brain health to healthy aging.
It is a flexible, anti-inflammatory way of eating that prioritizes eating plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans), and whole grains.
Coffee is not listed as a key pillar of the Mediterranean Diet, but coffee contains important plant-based antioxidants, such as flavonoids and polyphenols, with health benefits.
Rest assured, this article will explain why you can (and should) drink coffee while following the Mediterranean Diet, the health benefits of a Mediterranean Diet that includes coffee, and nutrition tips for drinking coffee Mediterranean Diet-style.
Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
This way of eating can be easily modified to fit most types of cuisine and food allergies. You are not limited to Mediterranean cuisine. The key features include:
- Choosing seasonal and local foods
- Prioritizing vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and legumes
- Opting for healthy fats like fish, nuts, nut butter, seeds, and olive oil
- Selecting unsweetened and fermented dairy products
- A moderate amount of dairy and eggs, occasional poultry
- Limiting processed foods
- Incorporating spices and herbs into cooking
There are many well-researched health benefits of following this eating style. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I recommend this method for overall health and reduced inflammation.
The Mediterranean Diet is a research-backed eating style that debuted in the United States in the 1970s when a scientist named Ancel Keys pointed out a strong correlation between heart disease and diet.
Ancel Keys then led the “Seven Countries Study” to determine relationships between lifestyles, nutrition, and heart disease among different populations across Finland, Holland, Italy, the United States, Greece, Japan, and Yugoslavia.
Those who ate closer to the Mediterranean Diet had less heart disease.
Research continues to validate the connection between improved heart health and the Mediterranean Diet.
The PREDIMED study is a large study published in 2018 that looked at the long-term effects of the Mediterranean Diet on heart disease.
It involved 7,447 men and women at high risk for heart disease into three types of diets (low-fat diet and two versions of a Mediterranean Diet). Participants were monitored for almost five years.
Participants following the two Mediterranean Diet versions had a 30% reduction in heart disease risk compared to the low-fat diet.
Beneficial improvements were seen in blood pressure, insulin levels, blood lipid (fat) profiles, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
How the Mediterranean Diet Works to Reduce Heart Disease
The PREDIMED study strongly supports that a high vegetable diet with many polyphenols and lower saturated fats helps prevent heart disease.
The Mediterranean Diet replaces saturated fats (found in red meats, butter, and high-fat dairy) with unsaturated fats (olive oil, nuts, and nut butters). It is not a low-fat diet but a heart-healthy fat diet.
Diets high in vegetables and plant foods are high in fiber and antioxidants, which help prevent heart disease.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes (and pre-diabetes) affects at least 20% of the population. People with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease and strokes than people without diabetes.
Unfortunately, heart disease and type 2 diabetes go together.
Fortunately, the same eating style that reduces heart disease risk also reduces type 2 diabetes risk.
How the Mediterranean Diet Works to Reduce Type 2 Diabetes
The Mediterranean Diet helps manage blood sugar levels. The foods commonly eaten on this diet include high-fiber carbohydrates loaded with nutrients such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. The Mediterranean Diet includes minimal added sugar foods.
After you eat or drink any foods with carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks carbohydrates down into glucose or sugar (or energy). This energy must then go where it is required (brain, blood cells, or muscles).
Next, the sugar is released into your blood. Your blood is a highway to carry the sugar where it is needed or store excess.
Insulin is released from the pancreas after being signaled that sugar is in your blood. Insulin helps unlock the doors to the cells in your body that need energy (sugar or glucose). It also helps to reduce blood sugar levels appropriately.
With type 2 diabetes, your cells and muscles quit responding well to the insulin. This causes blood sugar to stay in the blood. Your body may make excess insulin to try and fix the problem. Eventually, your body may just get tired and stop making insulin altogether.
Complex carbohydrates and high-fiber foods on the Mediterranean Diet take longer to digest, leading to more gradual blood sugar and insulin changes.
A large review article in 2020, including over 100,000 adults, studied the effect of the Mediterranean Diet and type 2 diabetes.
People following the Mediterranean Diet well had lower rates of type 2 diabetes. Individuals with high adherence had a 20% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Following the Mediterranean Diet helps control blood sugar levels by reducing long-term blood sugar levels (hemoglobin A1C), lowering fasting blood sugar levels, and keeping insulin working properly and responding.
The Mediterranean Diet contains anti-inflammatory foods at its core. Click here if you need a free printable list of anti-inflammatory foods to get started.
The Mediterranean Diet can prevent diet-related chronic diseases that cause inflammation. Studies have repeatedly found this eating style provides high phytochemicals like polyphenols.
Polyphenols are antioxidants that help reduce inflammation, enhance the immune system, reduce diabetes effects, and help prevent obesity. Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidant in the Mediterranean Diet.
As a refresher, acute (short-term) inflammation helps your body recover and return to its normal baseline. Inflammation can become long-term from various factors like aging, stress, continued illness, chronic disease, environment, and poor diet.
Your body does not rest or thrive when chronically inflamed. Food is a key way to help reduce inflammation, help you feel better and manage chronic conditions.
Types of Anti-Inflammatory Polyphenols in the Mediterranean Diet
|Types of Polyphenols||Food Sources:|
|Flavonoids||Flavonols||Onions, apples, berries, tea, beans, tomatoes, grapes, spices like coriander seeds|
|Flavones||Black olives, olive oil, wheat grains, fruits, vegetables|
|Anthocyanidins||Corn, strawberries, blood oranges, pomegranates, beans, red onions|
|Flavanols||Tea, grapes, apples, nuts such as almonds and pistachios, red wine|
|Non-flavonoids||Phenolic acids||Whole cereal grains, tea, carob leaves, garlic, spices such as coriander seeds, black cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, coffee|
|Stilbenes||Grapes, peanuts, plums, beans, red wine|
|Lignans||Whole-grain cereals, olive oil|
Coffee as Part of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
If you were scanning the previous table, you probably saw that I bolded coffee as one of the food sources of polyphenols found when eating the Mediterranean Diet.
Researchers have looked at the main compounds found in coffee and their relationship to reduced chronic disease. Research has been primarily focused on two compounds in coffee: caffeine and polyphenols.
Improved health outcomes have been noted when people habitually consume coffee, but there have been no direct links to varying caffeine amounts. This leads researchers to think that the regular polyphenol content of coffee is the main compound assisting in improved health outcomes.
Epidemiological studies find improved health outcomes are related to habitual coffee consumption, such as lowered risk of:
- Death by any cause
- Type 2 diabetes
- Parkinson’s disease
- Kidney stones
- Liver diseases/cancer
Coffee is entirely from plants. The researchers propose that coffee should be viewed as similar to fruits and vegetables in providing antioxidants like polyphenols. As a dietitian, this was also fun and new information for me!
When looking at a population and where their polyphenols come from, coffee provides, on average, 40% of all the polyphenol intake and 70% of phenolic acids. Tea intake provided the rest of the polyphenol intake.
Imagine including moderate amounts of coffee (and tea) into a diet rich in polyphenols (the Mediterranean Diet). You would take in large quantities of beneficial polyphenols and reap even more health benefits!
How Much Coffee Should I Drink?
Too much of anything can lead to unpleasant or unintended side effects. Remember, coffee has polyphenols AND caffeine.
Too much caffeine can lead to:
- trouble sleeping
- increased heart rate
- digestion or stomach issues
For healthy adults, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) has encouraged that 400 mg of caffeine daily is generally safe for most people. Some people are more (or less) sensitive to caffeine.
This caffeine limit is about four to five 8-ounce cups of regular coffee daily. A different amount of coffee may be appropriate for you (two cups is my happy place).
What Can I Put in My Coffee on the Mediterranean Diet?
We have established that coffee, in moderation, can boost polyphenol intake. Many of the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are related to an abundance of polyphenols.
Next, you must be mindful of what you add to your coffee to gain full health benefits. In America, added sugars and mixed coffee drinks are more common than black coffee. It may take some time to reduce the sugar content.
Consider slowly reducing the additions to your coffee over several weeks. Your taste buds regrow every two weeks or so. Gradual changes are less noticeable as your taste buds no longer expect sweeteners or large amounts of creamer.
Mediterranean Diet Coffee Ideas
- Try black coffee without sugary creamers or sweeteners
- Enjoy coffee with a balanced Mediterranean Diet breakfast (smoothie or oatmeal)
- Try anti-inflammatory herbs and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, or vanilla extract to flavor your coffee
- In place of heavy creamers, use lower-fat dairy milk (skim, 1%, or 2%)
- If you enjoy half and half or cream, use a small amount (1 tablespoon)
- Consider plant-based milks like almond or oat milk
- Try small amounts of natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup
- Pay attention to how your coffee is made at coffee shops (ask for half-sweet or research the menu for no-added sugar or low-sugar options).
- Make your coffee at home to control the additions
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you drink coffee while on the Mediterranean Diet?
Yes, you can drink coffee while following the Mediterranean Diet. Coffee is full of antioxidants, in particular, polyphenols. The Mediterranean Diet is abundant in polyphenols as well.
What can I put in my coffee?
To gain the most health benefits, black coffee is best. However, adding small amounts of milk or natural sweeteners can still allow for the anti-inflammatory benefits of consuming coffee.
What kind of coffee should I avoid?
Avoid pre-mixed coffee drinks from the store that include many additives and sugar. Avoid coffee drinks (from home or shops) that contain sugary syrups, sugary creamers, whipped toppings, or frozen ice cream coffee drinks.
Can you use milk on the Mediterranean Diet? Is milk inflammatory?
You can use milk on the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean Diet generally limits dairy to two servings per day. Using 1-2 ounces of milk in coffee is a small portion of the day and should not cause issues.
Dairy products are not inflammatory for most people. Research supports that dairy is slightly anti-inflammatory.
However, many people are lactose intolerant. The Mediterranean Diet recommends fermented dairy products (yogurt, kefir, and cheese). Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate fermented dairy.
How should I order coffee at my favorite coffee shop?
Try black coffee and ask to add your milk or cream and natural sweetener. Choose drinks that are mostly coffee and less sugar and milk.
Some examples include hot or iced black coffee, cold brew with no or little cream, espresso, and half or quarter-sweet cappuccinos or lattes.
It may take some time to figure out what coffee drinks you like with no sugar or low added sugar.
The Mediterranean Diet is an anti-inflammatory diet abundant in the antioxidants known as polyphenols. Coffee is a common source of polyphenols.
The Mediterranean Diet is well known for its ability to reduce your risk of heart disease type 2 diabetes, and reduce inflammation.
Combining the Mediterranean Diet with coffee can further help you boost your antioxidant intake, reduce inflammation, and may help prevent chronic conditions.
Follow the nutrition tips above to make your coffee Mediterranean Diet coffee.
Let’s get UNstuck and stay UNstuck!