How to Go Mediterranean: Diet Guide
This guide is for general information purposes only. We are providing what we hope will be a helpful resource, not a guaranty of success. We are not providing medical advice. Please consult with a doctor if you need such advice.
How to Go Mediterranean: Diet Guide
Looking for a heart-healthy lifestyle that leaves your taste buds happy? Look no further than the Mediterranean diet. This fruit, veggie, and olive oil-heavy lifestyle has fewer meats and carbohydrates than the typical American diet and has plenty of exciting recipes waiting to be explored. It originates primarily from the cultures of Italy, Spain, and other countries in the Mediterranean region that have eaten this way for centuries.
With a variety of tasty gastronomic choices, inviting colors, and strong scents, the Mediterranean diet proves that healthy doesn’t have to mean boring.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
While images of pasta and red wine may come to mind, there’s no one Mediterranean diet. At least 16 countries border the Mediterranean Sea and diets vary between countries. Many differences in culture, ethnic background, religion, economy, and agriculture result in different diets. There are some commonalities among these diets, however, such as the following:
- High consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds
- Olive oil as a source of healthy fat, instead of butter
- Dairy products, eggs, fish, and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and little red meat eating
- Wine consumed in low to moderate amounts
- Using herbs and spices (rather than salt) to flavor food
- Getting plenty of exercises
The Mediterranean diet has its origins in the Middle Ages, but the health benefits of such a diet were not discovered in the U.S. until American scientist Ancel Keys started to put the puzzle together in the 1950s. Keys was struck by a phenomenon that he, at first, could not explain. The lower-income population of small towns in Italy was much healthier than the higher-income citizens of New York. Keys suggested this depended on food and then created the “Seven Countries Study.” The study included Finland, Holland, Italy, the U.S., Greece, Japan, and Yugoslavia. Certain observations emerged from the study, primarily that the Mediterranean diet presented a very low rate of cholesterol in the blood and a smaller incidence of heart disease. This was mainly due to plentiful use of vegetables, grains, herbs, and olive oil, as well as a small to moderate amount of meat.
Extensive research has since been conducted on the Mediterranean diet and the diet is still associated with fewer incidences of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet as the #1 Best Diet Overall, Best Plant-Based Diet, Best Heart-Healthy Diet, Best Diabetes Diet, Best Diet for Healthy Eating, and the Easiest Diet to Follow.
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet include weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control. It may also help improve cognition, slow cognitive decline and prevent or slow Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed people who had type 2 diabetes or high risk for cardiovascular disease. Those on a calorie-unrestricted Mediterranean diet had 30% fewer heart-related events. It has also been found to lower the risk of stroke in women by 20%.
What’s the secret behind all these health benefits? One researcher suggests that the two primary reasons for the Mediterranean diet’s benefits are its tendency to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. These two factors underlie many age-related diseases, particularly those related to the brain. The emphasis on eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains ensures that the body is getting plenty of nutrients including fiber, which is vital for digestive health and cancer prevention. Another aspect of the Mediterranean diet is the recommendation to be physically active.
What You Eat (and Don’t Eat) on a Mediterranean Diet
One of the things that makes the Mediterranean diet easy to stick with is that there are no food groups that are completely banned. Since it doesn’t involve portion control, calorie counting, or carb counting, it is convenient to do and gives you a variety of choices both in terms of recipes and when eating out. Another thing that people like about the Mediterranean diet is that it is very flavorful, with fresh herbs, spices, garlic, lemon, and other seasonings. If you delve into some of the Egyptian, Turkish and Moroccan cuisine dishes, you may start eating spices that you were not previously familiar with such as za’atar, saffron, cumin, turmeric, and fennel.
Foods to eat
- Plenty of vegetables, including broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, spinach, eggplant, asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
- Plenty of fruit, including avocados, tomatoes, olives, berries, oranges, apples, pears, figs, melons, peaches, etc.
- Seasonings such as garlic, onion, fresh and dried herbs, and spices
- Legumes like lentils, hummus, beans, and peas
- Fats like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.
- Whole grains like whole-wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, couscous, quinoa, etc.
- Protein from fish and seafood
- Beverages – water mostly, but also coffee and tea and up to 1 glass of red wine per day
- Protein from poultry, eggs, cheese, and Greek yogurt (this group in moderation)
- Protein from red meat (rarely, no more than twice a month)
Foods to avoid
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Added sugars
- Butter and cream
- Processed meat like salami, deli meats, hot dogs, and bacon
- Refined grains like white bread, pastries, and white rice
- Refined oils like canola oil, palm oil, and soybean oil
- Processed or packaged foods
Does a Mediterranean Diet Help You Lose Weight?
The Mediterranean diet may help you lose weight. In a study published in Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism, participants were assigned to one of three diets: a traditional Mediterranean diet, a low-carb Mediterranean diet, or a diet based on recommendations by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). All groups lost weight, with the traditional Mediterranean diet resulting in an average of 16 pounds, the ADA diet an average of 17 pounds, and the low-carb Mediterranean diet an average of 22 pounds after a year.
The Mediterranean diet is more of a healthy lifestyle diet than a “lose 20 pounds to fit into that dress” diet. If your current diet conforms to the standard American diet (SAD) and you switch to Mediterranean eating, you are likely to lose weight because you will stop eating sweets, most baked goods, and processed food and start eating more low calorie, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables and fruits.
Vegetables are low calorie, but nutrient-dense so you can eat relatively large portions of them. The fiber from vegetables, legumes, and fruits plus those from whole grains, will fill you up so you eat fewer calories overall. The protein from dairy, fish, and seafood also has a filling effect, and fish and seafood are relatively low in calories.
Pros of Going Mediterranean
So, is the Mediterranean diet worth trying? There’s a lot of evidence to back up the claim that it’s good for you. Check out some of the benefits of this old-school food regimen.
- Backed by facts. If you’re looking for a diet that has a lot of scientific evidence behind it, then the Mediterranean diet is the way to go. Dozens of studies have confirmed the invigorating health effects of this traditional way of eating.
- Lower risk of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. According to a major study, about 70 percent of participants who were on a Mediterranean diet were less likely to experience a stroke, heart attack, or death from heart disease than those on a low-fat diet.
- Living better for longer. A study of more than 10,000 women found that those who followed a healthy diet similar to a Mediterranean diet were about 40 percent more likely to live past the age of 70 without chronic illnesses and physical and mental problems.
- Lower risk of breast cancer. A preliminary study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine reported that older women in Spain who ate a traditional Mediterranean diet enhanced with extra virgin olive oil were less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Low in processed foods and sugar. In contrast to the typical American diet, it’s very low in sugar and almost free of all artificial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. Desserts consist of fruit or homemade desserts made with natural sweeteners, like honey.
- Sustained weight loss. Because it doesn’t involve cutting out any major food group, like carbs, the Mediterranean diet can help you lose weight and keep it off with changes you can sustain long-term. Healthy fats, fiber-rich veggies, and whole grains keep you feeling full while consuming fewer calories.
- Good for diabetes. The Mediterranean diet can help those with type 2 diabetes improve blood sugar control and lose weight. A study found that compared to vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, high-protein, and other diets, the Mediterranean diet came out on top for treating diabetes.
- Socialize and de-stress. The Mediterranean diet isn’t just a food regimen. It’s a lifestyle that can benefit your mental health. The diet emphasizes eating meals slowly with lots of people so you can swap stories while you munch on delicious food.
- Plenty of choices. Because it includes a variety of food groups, you will not feel deprived and it is easy to find something to make at home or eat out.
- No specific limits. There is no calorie counting, carb counting, or weighing of food with the Mediterranean diet, which makes it easy and relatively stress-free.
- Physical activity. Speaking of lifestyle changes, people in Mediterranean countries tend to walk quite a bit. Instead of immediately going for the car keys, try to see where you can insert long, leisurely walks into your routine.
Cons of Going Mediterranean
While the pros are plentiful, there are some things you should keep in mind if you go the Mediterranean route. You may need to make some adjustments to the diet if any of the following issues affect you.
- High in fat. While fat can lead to greater feelings of fullness after meals, it can also cause weight gain if consumed too often. Watch out for too much oil, cheese, and nuts. If you eat a lot of full-fat dairy, your cholesterol levels could go up, putting you at risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Lower levels of iron. If you’re used to a meat-heavy diet, switching to a plant-heavy one may lower your iron levels. If you choose to follow this diet, be sure to eat foods or supplements rich in iron as well as vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron.
- Calcium loss. You may experience lower calcium levels from eating fewer dairy products. Speak with your doctor to see if you need a calcium supplement.
- Alcohol abuse. While wine is a common feature of the Mediterranean diet, some people should not drink in general. Avoid wine if you’re prone to alcohol abuse, pregnant, at risk for breast cancer, are taking medication easily affected by alcohol, or have other conditions that alcohol could make worse.
- Expensive add-ons. Olive oil and other staples of the Mediterranean diet can be pricey. Try buying in bulk from stores like Costco.
- Cooking. For those who aren’t very good in the kitchen, there may be a learning curve when starting this particular diet. Start with some of the easy recipes we mention below.
- Too general. For people who like to know exactly what they should eat, how much, and when, the Mediterranean diet may be a bit too general. Correct this by doing meal planning at the beginning of the week.
How to Go Mediterranean
First, it’s important to understand the elements of a Mediterranean-type diet. Base every meal on fruits, vegetables, whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, and bulgur), olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes (lentils, dried peas, and beans), seeds, herbs, and spices. Eat fish at least twice a week. Eat moderate portions of cheese and yogurt daily to weekly. Eat moderate portions of poultry and eggs every two days or weekly. Eat red meat sparingly or limit it to three-ounce portions. Drink plenty of water each day and drink wine in moderation — no more than one glass a day for women or two glasses per day for men. The wine servings should be no more than five ounces. Eat homemade dessert sparingly or opt for fruits. Cook most of your meals at home.
Now that you have those guidelines in mind, don’t try to do them all at once. Start by cutting your intake of meat and replacing butter with olive oil for your cooking needs. Then move on to making all your dinners the Mediterranean and slowly change more of your meals as the weeks go on.
- Choose two breakfasts that you like, so you don’t have to think too much in the morning. Some choices include oatmeal with fruit, eggs with veggies, and feta or Greek yogurt.
- Keep foods simple, especially if you are a less experienced cook or are pressed for time. Bagged salad greens, chicken breasts, eggs, canned tuna, and microwave-in-bag vegetables are all good choices.
- Make ahead. If you want to try some more complex recipes, cook a larger portion and eat some leftovers for lunch throughout the week.
- Prepare your snacks. Since you won’t want to be tempted by the office vending machine, prepare some healthy whole food snacks to bring to work such as baby carrots with hummus, an apple with nuts, or Greek yogurt with berries.
- Buy individually packaged frozen fish filets. You will start eating more fish on this diet, so it’s good to have some at hand without having to go out to the store each time. Find a kind of fish that you like and buy a package with a bunch of individually wrapped filets. A bonus is that they defrost very quickly, so you can make them even without planning too far ahead.
- Make your salad dressing. Homemade salad dressings not only taste better than store-bought versions, but you can control what goes into them. Use extra virgin olive oil and a vinegar of your choice as a base and experiment with using fresh herbs, fresh garlic, honey, and maybe a little parmesan cheese.
- Go for lean meats and fatty fish. For those occasional meat indulgences, choose lean cuts of meat with the fat trimmed. But for fish, choose fatty varieties (don’t worry, it’s healthy fat) like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and trout.
- Modify it to suit you. Interested in a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle? No problem. The Mediterranean diet can be modified in a variety of ways since it includes so many food groups.
- For the most part, limit dairy to yogurt and cheese like feta, parmesan, and ricotta. Aim for two to three servings per week to get your calcium and vitamin D.
- For dessert, choose fruit. If you want it a little sweeter, you can add honey or cook it to caramelize the natural sugars.
An easy way to stick to the Mediterranean diet is to primarily shop the perimeter of the store where the produce, fish, seafood, meat, and dairy are displayed. Make a few forays down the aisles for whole wheat pasta, spices, olive oil, and legumes. Here is a shopping list; choose items you like (or want to try) in each category for variety and balanced nutrition.
- Vegetables. Tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, etc.
- Fruits. Apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, dates, figs, melons, peaches, etc.
- Nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, Macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more.
- Legumes. Beans, peas, lentils, pulses, peanuts, chickpeas, etc.
- Tubers. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, yams, etc.
- Whole grains. Whole oats, brown rice, rye, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole wheat, whole grain bread, and pasta.
- Fish and seafood. Salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, mackerel, shrimp, oysters, clams, crab, mussels, etc.
- Poultry. Chicken, duck, turkey, and more.
- Eggs. Chicken, quail, and duck eggs.
- Dairy. Cheese, yogurt, Greek yogurt, etc.
- Herbs and spices. Garlic, basil, mint, rosemary, sage, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, etc.
- Healthy fats. Extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados, and avocado oil.
And here’s a list of what to avoid:
- Added sugar. Soda, candies, ice cream, table sugar, and many others.
- Refined grains. White bread, pasta made with refined wheat, etc.
- Trans fats. Found in margarine and various processed foods.
- Refined Oils. Soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, and others.
- Processed meat. Processed sausages, hot dogs, etc.
- Highly processed foods. Everything labeled “low-fat” or “diet” or looks like it was made in a factory.
The Mediterranean on a Budget
If you are used to buying mostly packaged foods, you may see your grocery bills climb when you switch over to the Mediterranean diet. However, there are ways to save:
- Shop for vegetables and fruits in season. When produce is in season, it is not only fresher, but it is also less expensive. Non-seasonal produce needs to be transported from the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are switched, which takes time and money and also is not good for the environment. If you need something for a recipe that is not in season, shop the frozen food aisle. When you can, buy local produce.
- Minimize food waste. If you find yourself with some veggies at the back of the fridge, look for recipes so you can use them up before they go bad. Slightly past peak (but not rotten) fruit can also be cooked for a delicious dessert.
- For fish, try canned or frozen. Fish can be very expensive, but you can get lean protein and omega-3 fats from their canned or frozen varieties.
- Replace meat with legumes. Cut out expensive meat a few days a week and replace it with a recipe made with hearty beans or legumes. They are filling, nutritious, and have an umami flavor like meat.
- Buy in bulk. Shop warehouse stores like Costco or BJ’s to stock up on olive oil, nuts, produce (only if you are going to use it), and other food items. You can even buy whole grain bread and put the extra loaf in the freezer.
- Drink wine in moderation (or not at all). Wine is allowed on the Mediterranean diet, but it is not required. Limit wine to one glass for women or two for men daily at most.
Preparing to Go Mediterranean
Because of its popularity, there are several great books that you can buy to get started with a Mediterranean diet, even varieties specifically geared for weight loss. Any recipe book from Spain, Italy, or another Mediterranean country will do the trick as well. There are also a variety of websites with recipes like the Mediterranean Dish. Don’t want to look for recipes yourself? Popular meal delivery services like Blue Apron have Mediterranean eating plans where they will mail you the ingredients and recipes.
In terms of body changes, you should feel minimal effects from changing your diet. If you haven’t been eating many vegetables, your body may take some time to adjust. Just drink plenty of water and be ready for some gassiness.
Essential Kitchen Tools
If you do not have much experience in the kitchen, you will need to stock your kitchen with some essential kitchen tools, since you will be cooking a lot more.
- Good chef’s knife for chopping, cutting, slicing, and dicing
- A large cutting board
- A baking dish for roasting, gratins, and dishes like moussaka (layered Greek dish with eggplant)
- Colander for draining pasta and washing veggies
- Cast iron skillet for one pan and stovetop-to-oven dishes
- Dutch oven for braising
- Grater/zester for, well, grating cheese, veggies, and garlic, and zesting lemons
- Measuring cup and measuring spoons
- Mortar and pestle for grinding and crushing herbs, nuts, and spices
- Mixing bowls for mixing and serving (and even storing if they have a lid)
- Pepper grinder for freshly ground pepper on salads and other dishes
In no time, you’ll be an expert at making (and eating) delicious, home-cooked meals that are good for your body and mind. And don’t forget to invite friends or family over for dinner!
Eating Out on the Mediterranean
You are guaranteed to find a plethora of Mediterranean diet choices if you choose a restaurant that serves food from one of the Mediterranean countries (Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, or Morocco. However, there are still plenty of choices available at other kinds of restaurants. For example, you could get:
- Grilled salmon and veggies at Applebee’s or TGI Fridays
- Tilapia with pure lump crab meat at Outback Steakhouse
- Greek salad at Panera
- Most seafood dishes at Red Lobster as long as they are not fried, breaded, or smothered in butter
If you are going to a fancier sit-down restaurant, look for fish or seafood dishes accompanied by vegetables. When ordering a salad, ask for olive oil and vinegar to avoid sugars and other additives.
A Day in the Life of the Mediterranean Diet
Ready to take the plunge? There’s a whole culinary world waiting for you with the Mediterranean diet. Check out some of these simple meals that even a cooking novice can make delicious.
Breakfast: Zucchini and tomato frittata
- 8 eggs
- ¼ teaspoon of salt
- ¼ teaspoon of crushed red pepper
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 small zucchini, thinly sliced lengthwise
- ½ cup of yellow or red cherry tomatoes cut in half
- 2 ounces of bite-size fresh mozzarella balls
- 1/3 cup of coarsely chopped walnuts
- Preheat the broiler.
- Whisk together eggs, salt, and crushed red pepper in a medium bowl.
- Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch oven-going skillet over medium-high heat. Layer the zucchini slices on the bottom of the skillet in an even layer. Cook for three minutes, turning once. Top with cherry tomatoes.
- Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables in the skillet. Top with mozzarella balls and walnuts. Cook over medium heat for four to five minutes or until the sides begin to set, lifting with a spatula to allow the uncooked portion to run underneath.
- Broil four inches from the heat for two to three minutes more or until set. Cut into wedges to serve.
Lunch: Quinoa chickpea salad with roasted red pepper hummus dressing
- 2 tablespoons of hummus, original or roasted red pepper flavor
- 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon of chopped and roasted red pepper
- 2 cups of mixed salad greens
- ½ cup of cooked quinoa
- ½ cup of rinsed chickpeas
- 1 tablespoon of unsalted sunflower seeds
- 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley
- A pinch of salt
- A pinch of ground pepper
- Stir the hummus, lemon juice, and red peppers in a small dish. Thin it out with water to the desired consistency for dressing.
- Arrange the greens, quinoa, and chickpeas in a large bowl. Top it with sunflower seeds, parsley, salt, and pepper. Serve with the dressing.
Dinner: Roasted salmon rice bowl with beets and Brussels sprouts
- 1 cup of wild rice blend
- 2 medium golden beets, peeled and cut into half-inch wedges
- 8 ounces of Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
- 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, divided
- ¾ teaspoon of salt, divided
- ¾ teaspoon of ground pepper, divided
- 1 lemon
- 1 pound of wild-caught salmon fillet, cut into four portions
- 2 rosemary sprigs, cut in half
- 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme, basil, or rosemary
- 1 clove of minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon of chopped pistachios
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Cook the rice blend according to the package directions.
- Toss the beets and Brussels sprouts with one tablespoon of oil and ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. After the rice has cooked for 10 minutes, spread the vegetables on alarge rimmedd baking sheet and roast until they start to brown and soften for about 15 minutes.
- Cut the lemon in half crosswise. Cut half the lemon into four slices (reserve the other lemon half). Push the beets and Brussels sprouts to one side of the baking sheet and place the salmon on the empty half. Sprinkle the salmon with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper and top each piece of salmon with a rosemary sprig and a lemon slice. Continue roasting until the vegetables have softened and the salmon is opaque in the center, 9 to 11 minutes more.
- Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemon half into a small bowl. Whisk in the remaining two tablespoons of oil, herbs, garlic, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
- Divide the rice among four bowls. Discard the lemon slices and rosemary sprig. Arrange the salmon and vegetables on top of the rice. Drizzle each serving with about one tablespoon of lemon juice mixture and sprinkle with pistachios.
Snack Suggestions: A handful of nuts, a piece of fruit, carrots, berries or grapes, Greek yogurt, apple slices with almond butter, marinated olives, and feta cheese on flatbread crackers or paprika on hard-boiled eggs.
Drink Suggestions: Water, red wine, fruit juices that contain pulp, tea, coffee, and almond milk.