The Mediterranean diet is a favorite among food bloggers and nutritionists. You may have heard of it, but you’ll probably be surprised at how easy – and delicious – it actually is.
What’s so great about the Mediterranean diet, anyway – and what is it all about? This beginner’s guide will introduce you to some of the evidence behind why so many experts praise this diet, as well as walk you through which foods you should eat more of and which you should eat less of if adopting the Mediterranean diet.
Mediterranean Diet Review
Countries such as Greece and Italy have been, over time, said to have populations that live longer and contract fewer chronic diseases such as heart and digestive ailments. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet has since been coined one of the more healthy diets out there … and those claims aren’t far off.
Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet has the potential to promote healthy weight loss, reduce the risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes and may even lower your risk of developing certain cancers.
Mediterranean Diet Plan Basics and Rules
Now a little bit about what you really came here for: which foods you can and can’t eat while on the Mediterranean diet. This diet is largely plant based, and mostly discourages dairy products … which the body doesn’t necessarily need large amounts of, anyway. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to add to your grocery list and what to keep off of it.
Foods you should eat often on the Mediterranean diet
As mentioned above, while you won’t be cutting out very many whole foods or food groups from your plate while you are on this diet, it does put a lot more emphasis on:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Legumes (peas, beans)
- Fish and seafood
- Whole grain breads, pastas
- Nuts and seeds
Foods you should eat in moderation on the Mediterranean diet
What does “in moderation” mean, anyway? In terms of the Mediterranean diet, it means small portions, no more than once a day at the very most. One chicken breast, a cup of yogurt or a few eggs are all probably fine. But try not to melt cheese on everything, no matter how good it might taste (sorry …).
Foods you should only eat every once in awhile on the Mediterranean diet
The only food the Mediterranean diet specifies to avoid – most of the time – is red meat, and for pretty good reason. Research has implied that consuming large quantities of red meat on a regular basis could be bad for our heart health and might have the potential to cause a certain type of cancer. Because research has yet to prove these things, it’s probably best to limit the amount of red meat you consume. You don’t have to cut it out completely. But don’t have a burger or steak with every meal, either.
Foods you should not eat on the Mediterranean diet
The foods the Mediterranean diet suggests should be avoided are pretty much foods you should already at least be limiting anyway.
- Refined grains
- Added sugars
- Processed meats
- Any other form of highly processed foods
Heavily processed foods – foods that have gone through a lot of refining and have had a lot of extra ingredients added to them – can make you sick. Stick to as many whole foods as possible – think what you would buy at the farmer’s market or the produce section of the grocery store. If it comes in a box, you’re probably better off leaving it on the shelf.
How to follow the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid
Here is a quick breakdown of the best way to follow the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.
- Eat red meat and desserts only on special occasions, such as having ham at Christmas or cake to celebrate someone’s birthday. When you do prepare desserts, avoid purchasing prepared (boxed or packaged) items and, instead, make them from scratch using healthier ingredients.
- Foods like yogurt, cheese, eggs and poultry should be limited to very small portions each day or moderate portions only a few times per week.
- Consume fish and seafood at least twice per week. Change it up each time so you aren’t stuck eating the same kind of fish or seafood each time, especially if you are not used to eating it as often.
- Eat foods such as grains, fruits and vegetables daily, preferably at more than one meal every day.
Like to add extra flavor to your food? Salt is not the answer
One common complaint people have regardless of their specific diet is that many diets discourage the use of condiments like salad dressings, thick and creamy sauces and flavor enhancements such as salt. This is also the case with the Mediterranean diet, since many of these items are processed or unhealthy, but there’s an easy solution.
Instead of simply saying no to salt and heavily processed sauces and dressings, the Mediterranean diet encourages the use of spices and herbs to flavor foods instead of items like salt. Too much sodium, over time, is bad for your heart.
There’s one more thing that makes this diet unique … did you notice it?
Take a closer look at the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. There! Do you see it?
The Mediterranean actually specifies that being physically active is part of what makes up a healthy lifestyle. You can eat all the fruits and vegetables you want to, but if you’re not moving, you probably aren’t going to notice much of a difference.
Experts recommend approximately 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Find a fitness activity you will enjoy doing, such as running, playing basketball or weight lifting, set a workout routine and stick to it.
This diet’s inclusion of exercise and eating meals together with friends and family is unlike most of the other popular diets we have covered in this series so far. This is a great thing for the Mediterranean diet and not so great for other diets. As important as it is to focus on eating healthier foods, cutting out processed foods alone isn’t necessarily going to make you any healthier.
Quick tips for success on the Mediterranean diet
- Eat a variety of foods at each meal. Try to fill your plate with as many different food groups as possible, including grains, vegetables, protein and fruit.
- Remember that a diet is a transition. Take your time incorporating new foods or more foods of a particular food group into your meals one at a time while slowly phasing out things that contain added sugars and artificial ingredients.
- Don’t swear off of fish or seafood before you’ve let yourself try different things. You might not like crab or salmon, but may fall in love with tuna or tilapia.
Menu and Meal Planning
- Banana nut oatmeal
- Chickpea salad
- Crackers with hummus
- Fruit smoothie
- Homemade potato chips
- Strawberries and yogurt
Grocery Shopping List
- Almonds, cashews, walnuts
- Sunflower seeds
Does the Mediterranean Diet Work?
You’ve likely heard people say over and over again that the Mediterranean diet is an excellent dietary choice to make. What, specifically, makes it so amazing? Here are a few of the Mediterranean’s most notable health benefits.
- Emphasis on plant based eating, which not only promotes heart health but reduces risk of other diseases and conditions.
- Discourages red meat and encourages consumption of fish and seafood, which tend to be higher in unsaturated fats (the “good” kind of fats).
- Only suggests “avoiding” foods such as processed food, which nutrition experts strongly recommend against.
The one downside to the Mediterranean diet is that it does not specify how much of each type of food or food group you are supposed to be eating per day. This can be good for some people because it encourages them to focus more on food and less on things like calories and weight. Those who have trouble with portion control, however, might still overeat on this diet if they do not take the time to learn about proper serving and portion sizes.
That being said, adopting the Mediterranean diet does not mean you should indulge in unlimited breadsticks and giant bowls of pasta smothered in Alfredo sauce whenever you get the chance! Eating a variety of foods is your ticket to Mediterranean diet success.
What the Mediterranean diet cannot do
As with any diet, the Mediterranean diet does have some limitations. As you can probably guess, it is a diet … not a magic potion that will instantly make you healthy!
- It cannot, through food alone, help you lose weight. That is why there is an emphasis on physical activity. So if you think changing your eating habits alone is going to give you magic results, it’s time for a reality check. Or a new pair of sneakers.
- It cannot teach you better portion control.
- It cannot guarantee that you will not develop type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Risk reduction is something very different. Reduced risk of developing these conditions is a potential side effect.
The Mediterranean diet is a lot simpler, and more satisfying, than you might think. Stock up on fruits and veggies and have fun getting healthy!