Can a Healthy Diet Offset the Negative Effects of Obesity?

Healthy Diet

Can eating healthy compensate for the health risks of being obese? Obesity is a leading risk factor for many health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. The best way to mitigate this risk factor is to lose weight and get back to a healthy body fat range. However, not everyone can get down to a healthy body weight. For some, a health condition might make it difficult for them to lose weight or medications might make it harder to shed body fat. Medications are a common cause of weight gain and a number of medications that make it harder to lose weight.

What if the weight won’t come off, or at least come off quickly enough? Can lifestyle factors, particularly eating a healthy diet, offset the harmful effects of obesity?  According to a new study, the answer is a tentative yes. Let’s look at how researchers came to this conclusion.

What a Study Showed about Healthy Eating and Obesity

Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the dietary habits of over 79,000 Swedish adults enrolled in another study. They gave each subject a score based on how closely they adhered to a Mediterranean-style diet, a diet health professionals call one of the healthiest in the world. Based on their adherence to a Mediterranean diet, the researchers assigned the participants a number from 0 to 8, with 8 being the highest adherence and 0 the least.

After following the subjects for 21 years, the researchers compared the mortality rates of the subjects with how closely they followed a Mediterranean diet. When they took into account an additional factor, body weight, following a Mediterranean diet partly modified the link between obesity and cardiovascular disease. Obese individuals who adhered to a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of dying of cardiovascular disease than obese people who didn’t consume a Mediterranean diet. In fact, obese subjects who patterned their diet around Mediterranean eating principles had a mortality rate similar to normal-weight individuals who ate a Mediterranean diet. Also, even individuals who weren’t overweight had higher mortality when they deviated far from a Mediterranean diet.

As the researchers point out, the Mediterranean diet may not completely offset the health risks of obesity, but it lowers the odds of dying early for those who are obese and for people of normal weight.  It’s still better to lose the extra weight; the good news is the Mediterranean diet helps with weight control too.  In fact, one study found a Mediterranean diet was superior to a low-fat eating plan for losing weight.

What is a Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is modeled around the dietary habits of people who live along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s an eating style that emphasizes fish and plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. The preferred fat comes from monounsaturated fatty acids like those in nuts and olive oil. People who live in these areas of the world eat a high-fiber diet that limits sugar, red meat, and processed meat.

Studies show that the Mediterranean diet may offer longevity benefits for people of all ages, races, and gender. In one study of over 10,000 middle-aged women, those who followed a Mediterranean-style diet were 40% more likely to live to the seventh decade of life. Plus, they were more likely to survive this long without mental or physical health problems.

In addition, eating a Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of health problems that plaque both genders later in life. In fact, the Lyon Diet Heart Study found that eating a Mediterranean diet was linked with a 50 to 70% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease and recurrent stroke. It also helps with blood pressure control. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet is good for heart and blood vessel health.

The rich array of plant-based foods and seafood that makes up the Mediterranean diet may also be a boon for brain health. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York scanned the brains of middle-aged adults, a portion of whom had been eating a Mediterranean diet for years. The scans showed the subjects who ate a Mediterranean diet had 15% less beta-amyloid in their brains. Beta-amyloids are misfolded proteins that people with Alzheimer’s have in larger quantities. So, eating a Mediterranean diet might have benefits for cardiovascular health and brain health too. If it slows the build-up of beta-amyloid in the brain, it could help your brain stay younger longer.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of what eating plan you follow, keep this in mind. Estimates are that one in five deaths is related to an unhealthy diet. Most of the risk comes from eating a diet rich in ultra-processed fare, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar. You have a choice, though. You can choose a Mediterranean style diet that emphasizes whole foods.

The Mediterranean diet may not completely negate the health risks of obesity, but this study suggests it comes close. Plus, if you combine it with more physical activity, the combination can help you lose weight too. If you need inspiration, buy a Mediterranean cookbook and try some recipes. With so much variety, it’s an eating plan you’ll never grow weary of. Plus, it’s a nutrient-dense style of eating, so you get a diversity of nutrients without a lot of calories, and that’s something to celebrate!



  • com. “Mediterranean Diet 101: A Meal Plan and Beginner’s Guide”
  • Eating Well. March 1, 2020. “The Real Mediterranean Diet”
  • com. “Does a healthy diet counter the ill-effects of obesity”
  • Karl Michaëlsson, John A. Baron, Liisa Byberg, Jonas Höijer, Susanna C. Larsson, Bodil Svennblad, Håkan Melhus, Alicja Wolk, Eva Warensjö Lemming. Combined associations of body mass index and adherence to a Mediterranean-like diet with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: A cohort study. PLOS Medicine, 2020; 17 (9): e1003331 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003331.
  • Harvard Health Publishing. “Adopt a Mediterranean diet now for better health later”
  • Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2016 Nov; 19(6): 401–407. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000316.


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