Widely considered one of the healthiest ways to eat, the Mediterranean diet is popular among nutritionists, physicians, and food lovers alike. The abundance of choices in a Mediterranean diet food list — which includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and olive oil — makes adherence relatively easy compared with other diets. Following a Mediterranean diet meal plan can be good for the heart, aid weight loss efforts, and support a healthy and joyful lifestyle.
Quick Tips to Start a Mediterranean Diet
Try these tips to jump-start your Mediterranean diet:
- Swap out butter and margarine for healthier olive oil.
- Increase your vegetable intake, adding a couple more servings to your plate each meal.
- Replace refined grains with whole or ancient and alternative grains. Although it’s often presented as a healthy option, avoid whole-wheat bread. Wheat is usually genetically modified and contains gluten.
- There’s no need to consume animal protein. Select a few of your favorite plant-based sources of protein, like seeds, nuts, and beans. If you must eat meat, do it occasionally and stick to lean, organic cuts that are humanely raised.
- For snacks, eat a handful of raw nuts, such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, or pistachios.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with a piece of fresh fruit.
- Have more sit-down meals with family and friends, in the Mediterranean way.
- Avoid eating while using your cell phone or in front of the computer or TV.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the lifestyle adopted by the people of Southern Italy, Greece, and neighboring countries before globalization and the subsequent rise of processed and fast food. You’ll enhance the touted health benefits of the Mediterranean diet when you couple it with regular exercise and an emphasis on social connection, such as eating relaxed meals with family and friends.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t strictly plant-based but it can be plant-based, meaning that eating meat and animal products are not a cornerstone of this diet. There are many plant-based sources of protein that you can eat, as well as a wide array of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, brown rice, and nuts. Use olive oil instead of fats like butter or margarine, and if desired, you can include a moderate amount of red wine.
If you adhere to the Mediterranean diet closely, you will likely lose weight. This may happen for a couple of reasons. When following this diet, you’ll consume high-fiber foods, avoid processed foods and refined sugars, and replace saturated fats with healthy fats, such as olive oil.
Though it offers clear guidelines, the Mediterranean diet is not as restrictive as many other diets.
What Can You Eat?
The Mediterranean Diet offers a wide range of food choices. To get started, be sure to add these items to your grocery shopping list.
Vegetables & Fruits
Vegetables and fruits make up the largest tier of the Mediterranean diet food pyramid, forming an important part of all your meals. A good way to get started on the Mediterranean diet is to increase how much produce you buy and how much you put on your plate relative to other foods — aiming for about nine servings a day of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits. Select a rainbow of colors for maximum impact: red, orange, and yellow veggies and fruits, plenty of green leafy vegetables, and dark-hued berries, eggplants, olives, and the like. Fruit makes an excellent dessert when following the Mediterranean diet.
There are many types of bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, and cereal grains that have a place in the Mediterranean diet — just be sure to eat whole-grain versions for optimal nutrition. Avoid eating refined grains such as white bread and pasta made with refined or bleached flour, which are high on the glycemic index and lower in fiber than their whole-grain counterparts. And, if you’re trying to avoid gluten and GMOs, avoid wheat.
Fish & Seafood
Although Global Healing Center believes that plant-based food is the most healthy, you can’t fully discuss the Mediterranean diet without at least mentioning how animal products — including fish and seafood — factor into it. Because the diet originated near the Mediterranean Sea, seafood is often considered an integral part of it. If you’re going to partake, aim for at least two servings a week of fish, scallops, oysters, or other seafood. Pick varieties that are high in omega-3 fatty acids yet low in mercury and other contaminants. Good options include wild-caught salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, as well as bivalves such as mussels, clams, and oysters. Get a sustainable seafood guide that shows which seafood items are sustainably harvested and also low in contaminants, like mercury.
The Mediterranean diet recommendations allow for moderate consumption of poultry — say, two servings a week. Chicken, turkey, or quail are viewed as alternatives to red meat — which you should consume infrequently. If you consume meat, please choose organic, free-range, humanely-raised animals. However, know that your overall health is likely to improve if you strive for a primarily plant-based diet.
Eggs & Dairy
The Mediterranean diet incorporates moderate amounts of eggs and dairy products. Fermented dairy products such as Greek yogurt, and traditional or raw cheeses such as gorgonzola and feta, are a staple on the Mediterranean table.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is rich in antioxidants as well as monounsaturated fat, which comes with many proven health benefits including a lower rate of heart disease. If olive oil isn’t your thing, try avocado oil, which is also a monounsaturated fat. Drizzle oil on bread instead of slathering on butter, perhaps adding fresh herbs like basil and oregano. Mix oil with your favorite vinegar for a simple homemade salad dressing.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds make a healthy, protein-rich snack. Try adding popular Mediterranean nuts like almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, pecans or pistachios as a delicious addition to your salad. Opt for raw nuts, since roasting nuts may alter their healthy fat content, and avoid heavily salted or candied nuts. Tahini, made from sesame seeds, is another excellent choice.
Beans & Legumes
Be sure to include beans and legumes such as lentils, garbanzos (chickpeas), and cannellini (white kidney) beans in your Mediterranean diet. Great sources of protein, beans, and other legumes taste great combined with cereal grains such as brown rice, quinoa, or whole-grain pasta for a healthy and satisfying dish.
Herbs & Spices
Use herbs and spices liberally in the Mediterranean diet. They add flavor to meals and may reduce your salt cravings. Basil, parsley, oregano, rosemary, and thyme are common herbs in Mediterranean cuisine. Popular spices include saffron, turmeric, paprika, coriander, and cardamom. You can also try a spice blend like za’atar — a mixture of sumac, sesame seeds, thyme, hyssop, and oregano — which hails from eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine.
The enjoyment of wine in Mediterranean countries is no secret, and many experts tout the health benefits of red wine. Dieticians who studied the Mediterranean diet suggested no more than a three-ounce serving for women and a five-ounce serving for men. I advise little to no alcohol.
Good old-fashioned water is the beverage of choice in the Mediterranean diet. You can also enjoy coffee and tea. We recommend distilled water because it is free of contaminants and environmental pollutants.
Foods to Avoid
Steer clear of the following unhealthy foods, which are not part of a traditional, wholesome Mediterranean diet.
If it’s factory-made, avoid it. Processed foods often contain added sugar and artificial colors and flavors, as well as unhealthy trans fats, high sodium, and chemical preservatives. Moreover, science points to a strong connection between weight gain and processed foods.
Red Meats & Processed Meat
There are many good reasons to avoid red meat (beef and pork) entirely. Even though technically the diet allows meat once or twice per month, this is nutritionally unnecessary and may hurt your health. Definitely avoid heavily processed meats, like sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and salami, which typically contain harmful chemicals like nitrates and nitrites not present in natural meat.
Limit packaged food; they almost always have added refined sugar. From condiments like mayonnaise and salad dressing to spaghetti sauce and nut butter, look for varieties that do not contain excess sugar. Avoid soft drinks and limit sweets. Make sure you read all food labels to learn what goes into your food. Strive to make your own recipes to have better control over what ingredients go into your meals.
Bran and germ are removed from refined grains, such as white rice and white flour, to enhance shelf-stability. The bran and germ contain healthy fiber and valuable nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium. Replace white bread, white rice, and refined-grain pasta with healthier whole-grain alternatives.
Sometimes present in processed foods, trans fats often appear as “partially hydrogenated” oils in ingredient lists. Perhaps the unhealthiest type of fat, trans fat, has been linked with heart disease and other health problems.
Example Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan
The following is meal plan is an example of what following the Mediterranean diet could look like.
Breakfast: Steel-cut oatmeal with apples or raisins
Lunch: Minestrone soup with whole-grain bread; side salad with sliced almonds and olives
Dinner: Cauliflower crust pizza with vegetables, green bean salad with balsamic dressing; fruit salad for dessert
Breakfast: Greek yogurt with peaches, granola, and a drizzle of honey
Dinner: Whole-grain pasta primavera; side salad; fruit for dessert
Breakfast: Authentic Greek peach barley
Lunch: Greek salad; whole-grain pita bread with hummus
Dinner: Grilled vegetables served over salad greens; baked potato with olive oil; steamed broccolini
Can You Be Vegetarian on the Mediterranean Diet?
With its emphasis on plant-based whole foods, the Mediterranean diet is easy to follow as a vegetarian or vegan. Beans, nuts, seeds, seitan, and whole grains like quinoa are good vegan protein choices. With eggs and dairy, vegetarians have even more protein options available to them.
Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
Scientists have been intrigued by the Mediterranean diet since the late 1950s, which marked the onset of the 15-year Seven Countries Study. This study, and others, have documented the health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet. In addition to assisting with weight loss, adopting a Mediterranean diet may also prevent heart disease and promote long-term good health, among numerous added benefits.
Promotes Heart Health
The Seven Countries Study found a lower incidence of coronary artery disease and heart failure in Mediterranean countries compared to in Northern European countries and the United States. In this and many other studies conducted since, researchers linked a traditional Mediterranean diet with lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and a marked decrease in cardiac events such as heart attack and stroke.[6, 7]
Aids Weight Loss
The Mediterranean way of eating appeals even to non-dieters as a way to lose weight and stay healthy. If you hate “diets” yet want to shed pounds, you’ll be happy to hear that you can lose weight on a Mediterranean diet without restricting calories and with liberal use of the diet’s primary vegetable fat: olive oil. The Mediterranean diet can help you keep the pounds off. People who stuck to a non-calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet for five years lost between 9 and 22 pounds, and were able to keep it off after a year. It is also important to incorporate physical activity into your day, which will also assist with weight loss. For more ideas, check out our weight loss tips article.
Helps Prevent Cancer
Keeping cancer at bay may be another benefit of the Mediterranean diet. Several studies link this way of eating with reduced breast cancer risk.[10, 11] Researchers have linked the Mediterranean diet with a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer, and multiple studies find that people who adhere to a Mediterranean diet have a lower incidence of colon and rectal cancer.[12, 13]
Protects Against Chronic Diseases
Numerous chronic diseases may find a foil in the Mediterranean diet. Studies show that even without calorie restriction, the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Adhering to the diet may also lower the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease.[15, 16,17]
Supports Brain Function
With its emphasis on vegetables, fruits, and lean protein, the Mediterranean diet may offer just the right food for your brain. Some studies link adherence to the diet with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. One study found that for older adults, adhering to a Mediterranean diet with higher fish and lower red meat intake may make your brain about five years younger, with less atrophy and increased volume of gray and white matter.
The Mediterranean diet appears to support overall health in multiple ways, which may explain why it’s often linked with a longer lifespan. One study suggests that the diet may protect your telomeres — the ends of your chromosomes — which normally shorten with aging. Longer telomeres are a biomarker of longevity.
Ease of Following
Along with the above health benefits, the Mediterranean diet is easy to follow, adding to its widespread popularity. You won’t need a calculator to count your carbs or calories, for example. Since it allows you to eat a variety of foods, you’ll find it easy to get the wide range of nutrients you need.
Are There Side Effects?
Unlike fad diets, the Mediterranean diet evolved naturally over centuries and among real communities of people. Its side effects are minimal at best — and if any arise, it is likely from overdoing it with an otherwise-allowed food — for example, fats, wine, high-fat dairy, meats, or alcohol.
Overindulging in wine and other alcohol can lead to its own set of health issues, from liver disease to certain types of cancer. Fat consumption isn’t strictly limited in the Mediterranean diet, and you can end up consuming too much. While the diet emphasizes healthy fats, the American Heart Association recommends your total fat consumption not exceed 25 to 35 percent of your calories.
Depending on which foods you select, it can be easy to come up short on calcium when following the Mediterranean diet. Make sure to intentionally get enough calcium. You do not need to eat dairy products like yogurt and cheese to get calcium; there are plenty of excellent plant-based sources of calcium, such as spinach, kale, and broccoli.
Should You Try the Mediterranean Diet?
For most people, adopting a Mediterranean diet is advisable and beneficial to overall health. This diet plan and lifestyle emphasizes whole foods and includes plenty of vegetables and fruits. Although research suggests this plan can help prevent type 2 diabetes, the Mediterranean diet — with its unrestricted carbohydrates — may not be advisable for people who already have a diabetes diagnosis and need to watch carb intake.
Points to Remember
With its emphasis on fresh, whole foods, social dining, and moderate exercise, the Mediterranean diet is a more than just a diet — it’s a lifestyle. To follow a Mediterranean diet, you will eat regular servings of vegetables, whole grains (preferably gluten-free), and a source of protein.
You don’t need to eat meat to follow the Mediterranean diet. If you liberally use extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, olives, tomatoes, lemons, and popular herbs and spices like parsley, oregano, saffron, and turmeric, you’re virtually guaranteed delicious, satisfying, and healthy meals.
Popular with dieters and non-dieters alike, following a Mediterranean diet is easy to incorporate into any routine. This delicious and joyful way of eating and living bring a wealth of benefits, including heart health, mental wellness, and increased longevity.
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