The Mediterranean diet has become popular over the past couple of years because of its proven benefits and sustainability. Developers based the diet on traditional foods eaten in the 1960s by those living mainly in Italy and Greece; however, in the present day, the diet has expanded to include other Mediterranean countries as well. From heart disease prevention to boosting weight loss, the Mediterranean diet may be one of the most beneficial diets for overall health in recent years.
The Mediterranean diet is unique from other diets in that it does not require eliminating any food groups or macronutrients, is full of nutrient-rich foods, and every meal is full of robust flavor. It is not a diet that one gets tired of easily. The diet’s benefits can be accredited to its foundation in plant-based foods.
Foods of the Mediterranean Region
The Mediterranean Diet is based on the foods and dietary lifestyles of the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. We often associate a Mediterranean-style diet with countries like Spain, Greece, and Italy, where their plates are filled with healthy and delicious sustainable food choices.
Foods like olive oil, Greek yogurt, fresh veggies, and lean proteins that mostly come from seafood are the mainstays of the diet.
However, we can expand this even further to include the healthy eating lifestyles of other countries in the Mediterranean region when meal planning and trying new recipes. Other countries in the region of the Mediterranean Sea include Cypress, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Turkey, Malta, France, and Isreal, along with several others.
As you can see, there are many different cultural cuisines that can be explored with each of your Mediterranean dinners.
The variation between the different countries encompassing the Mediterranean region makes the foods to include and exclude in the Mediterranean diet slightly controversial. At its base, it highlights fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, potatoes, bread, nuts, and seeds.
It relies on extra virgin olive oil as the main dietary fat, along with red wine.
Proteins in the Mediterranean diet include fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy prepared using lean methods while significantly reducing red meat.
Foods to Eat
The diet is primarily plant-based and low in animal foods, but it is recommended to eat fish at least twice a week. Some of the more popular vegetables to integrate into Mediterranean dishes include cucumbers, carrots, spinach, onions, kale, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, and Brussels sprouts.
Snacks typically consist of fruit and nuts, but fruit can also be cooked into recipes to add sweet flavor without the added sugar. These fruits include apples, oranges, bananas, pears, grapes, strawberries, dates, figs, peaches, and melons, to name just a few.
- Brussel Sprouts
- Oranges & Lemons
- Brown Rice
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole-grain bread
Fats & Others
- Olive Oil
Nuts and seeds are added to just about any recipe possible, and legumes are a primary source of plant-based protein. Whole grains are essential for fiber and to complete the amino acid makeup of many plant-based meals, including brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and other whole-grain foods.
The Mediterranean diet’s heart health benefits should be predominantly accredited to fiber from a focus on whole grains.
A Mediterranean meal plan should integrate whole fruit and vegetables in their natural form or be prepared with healthy fats or extra virgin olive oil.
Carbohydrates and fat are the main macronutrients in a Mediterranean meal plant, with proteins coming primarily from fish or plants.
Plant proteins, like those from tofu or kidney beans, are also good options, although they may not be considered traditional Mediterranean foods. Carbohydrates should come from whole-grain sources like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and barley.
Foods to Avoid
Certain types of food should be avoided when wanting to follow the Mediterranean diet. These foods include those made with refined grains and oil, added sugar, trans fat, processed meat, and other highly processed foods.
Foods labeled as low-fat or marketed as diet food is highly processed and should be avoided. As a general rule, err on the side of whole foods.
- Red Meat
- Processed Meat
- White bread
- White pasta
Fats & Others
- Low-fat dairy
- Trans fat
- Refined oil
What to Drink
Beverages on the Mediterranean diet are easy; water and red wine. These two drinks of choice are another reason the Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy.
Coffee and tea are acceptable beverages also, but without added sugar and sweeteners. You should, as a rule, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.
The Mediterranean diet is meal-heavy at three meals a day, but a snack or two is also welcomed. Snacks are simple and typically include a handful of nuts, raw fruit, berries, Greek yogurt, almond butter, or carrots.
Unlike most other diets, eating out doesn’t have to be difficult when following the Mediterranean diet. Most restaurants have a fish option; choose this when available or lean poultry.
Ideally, it is important to avoid red meat when dining out, if at all possible. Request exchanging any oils for extra virgin olive oil and refined carbohydrates for whole-grain alternatives.
Sample Mediterranean Meals
The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that there aren’t any strict rules. You also don’t have to search through hundreds of recipes trying to find something you, or maybe your family, will enjoy.
Many of the meals you’re already enjoying at your dinner table can be adapted to the Mediterranean lifestyle just by swapping out a few ingredients.
You also don’t have to shy away from flavors. With all the fresh herbs and delicious, whole foods, meals never have to be bland or boring. Having a meal plan in place is a great strategy for sticking to the Mediterranean diet, but you might be surprised at how simple and easy the meals can be.
For example, a simple Monday breakfast might be something like fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, with a piece of whole grain bread toasted.
For lunch, a Greek salmon salad with a drizzle of olive oil is easy and delicious. A simple green salad with grilled shrimp, lemon juice, and tomato slices is another easy option.
Dinner can be fun because it’s the one meal of the day that most of us have a little more time to prepare and enjoy. Enjoy salmon with cooked brown rice or whole-grain pasta, but add a little extra olive oil and some fresh herbs for a punch of flavor. Serve it with roasted vegetables, like sweet potatoes or green beans. Try the vegetables that you might not normally eat every day.
Another option might be a simple whole-wheat flatbread with pesto or tomato sauce, then topped with a sprinkling of feta cheese and some veggies like green bell peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, or even fresh leafy greens. A flatbread is really a canvas where you can be as creative as you want.
Following the Mediterranean Diet Plan Made Easy
The Mediterranean diet largely centers around just making intuitively healthy food choices and avoiding unhealthy fats, sugars, and processed foods that increase your risk factors for a range of diseases and chronic health conditions.
Even though this way of eating does become intuitive after a while, making those initial adjustments to your diet can be confusing, and having a way of streamlining the process is a huge help.
Meal Plans & Meal Delivery Services
Meal plans that outline several dishes and basically provide a beginning road map are extremely helpful in adopting this style of healthy eating. Also, if you don’t like to cook or spend much time in the kitchen, Mediterranean diet meal delivery services offer convenience and can expose you to new dishes, not to mention eliminating details like creating meal plans or spending time on meal prep.
It’s also a good idea to make a grocery list of staples that are easy and that you already know you enjoy. That way, when you need a quick meal or are hungry and need something to hold you over until mealtime, you have something quick and easy to reach for.
A few easy staples to always have on hand include Greek yogurt, nuts, nut butter, such as almond butter, whole wheat bread, lots of fresh veggies that are washed, cut, and easy to grab, salad ingredients, and salad toppers like sunflower seeds, avocados, and olives.
Find a Mediterranean dish or two that you love that can also be prepared easily. Set aside a couple of hours every week to devote to meal prep. Just spending a little time can make a tremendous difference in how easy it is to adapt to the Mediterranean lifestyle.
Taking It a Step Further
Finally, try embracing some other Mediterranean habits that extend outside of what you eat. Relax and enjoy food, spend time lingering over a meal with friends or loved ones, and get in the mindset that what you eat is nourishing your body. You might also consider walking more places if you’re able, allowing yourself little indulgences, and taking steps to reduce your stress.
There are many aspects to the Mediterranean diet that involve more than meal planning, meal prep, and just getting some healthy food on the table.
Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan
Are you looking for an easy way to get started with the Mediterranean diet? Our Registered Dietitian nutritionist has created a 29-page full week of meals for the ideal Mediterranean Diet meal plan, including:
- Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, & Snacks for each day of the 7-Day meal plan
- Full Macronutrients for each day of the week including calories, protein, fats, and carbs
- Mediterranean Diet recipes
- Shopping List
This seven-day meal plan is completely free and provides a great foundation to get started on your new healthy lifestyle.
Mediterranean Diet Health Benefits
The supported life-altering benefits of the Mediterranean diet are the main reason this eating pattern is rising in popularity. It is more than a diet in the traditional sense; but is a way of life.
Prevents Heart attacks and strokes
The rich antioxidants, healthy fats, and whole grains in the Mediterranean diet make it effective in preventing heart attack and stroke with its ability to support heart health. Fiber works in the body to flush out cholesterol in the blood, which would otherwise cause blockages and an increased risk of cardiovascular issues.
A significant study looking at the heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet followed 7,447 participants for five years, all of which were at risk for cardiac disease.
Participants followed one of three diets; a Mediterranean diet with EVOO, a Mediterranean Diet with nuts, and a low-fat diet group.
The study found those who followed either form of the Mediterranean diet had significantly less risk of heart attack, stroke, and even heart disease-related death than those who followed a traditional low-fat diet.
The Mediterranean with EVOO (heart-healthy fats) group had 31% less risk, and the Mediterranean with the nuts group had a 28% less risk of these potential outcomes.
Prevents Type 2 Diabetes
A 2009 study found that the Mediterranean diet can alter interventions necessary for type 2 diabetes. It concluded that after four years, only 44% of those in the Mediterranean diet group required medication, while 70% of those in the low-fat group still required medication.
This could indicate a potential type 2 diabetes prevention benefit and, at the very least, an ability to potentially stabilize blood sugar levels.
Metabolic Syndrome refers to a cluster of conditions present that increase one’s risk of cardiac disease, diabetes, and stroke. These conditions include high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity (especially fat around the waist), and high cholesterol or triglyceride levels.
A 2004 study followed 180 participants with metabolic syndrome over 2.5 years. The study found that after 2.5 years, 86% of participants in the control group still had metabolic syndrome, while just 44% of those in the Mediterranean diet group still had this diagnosis.
Additional studies may point to why this diet pattern is able to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. A 2008 study showed the Mediterranean diet was just as effective for weight loss as low-carb diets and more effective than low-fat diets.
The Mediterranean way of life isn’t about calorie counting or complicated meal plans. However, many find that they lose weight naturally, just by following the Mediterranean dietry pattern.
With this dietary lifestyle, you enjoy a bounty of nutritious foods, which eventually transform your eating habits into a healthier version of what they used to be. When you eat foods that are aligned with the Mediterranean diet, you’re consuming foods that are less calorically dense.
This means you can actually eat more while “spending” fewer calories. Plus, there’s a good chance that you’ll have more energy, making it easier to add more physical activity to your daily routine.
According to Alzheimers.org, following a Mediterranean meal plan may offer some protective benefits against cognitive decline and some forms of dementia.
Research suggests that this dietary pattern may offer some protection against the damage to brain cells, which is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Keep in mind this isn’t a promise or a proven fact that this way of eating can absolutely prevent cognitive decline since there are so many other factors that may contribute to cognitive health. However, it’s just one of the numerous health benefits that the Mediterranean way of eating potentially provides.
The Mediterranean diet has proven over time and through research studies to be effective at regulating blood sugar and preventing heart disease and conditions associated with metabolic syndrome.
The diet is full of nutrient-dense produce, whole grains, healthy fats, and legumes that give it its heart-healthy benefits. Being primarily plant-based and full of flavor make the Mediterranean diet easy to start and sustain.
Trista K. Best, RD
Trista Best is a Registered Dietitian and has worked in Public Health for 10 years focusing on nutrition and health promotion. As a Dietitian she seeks to provide her clients with the skills necessary to take control over their health, one decision at a time.