The Mediterranean diet is an eating pattern that was inspired by the dietary habits of people living in the Mediterranean regions of Europe. There are large amounts of evidence that indicate that the Mediterranean diet promotes health and longevity through decreased disease risk. In fact, the Mediterranean diet has been researched in randomized settings with results indicating reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many other chronic conditions.
One of the beauties of the Mediterranean diet is that no foods are off limits completely. In fact, it is not actually a “diet,” instead it is intended to be an overall dietary pattern sustained over a lifetime. The Mediterranean diet makes conceptual sense and is easy to follow because it provides recommendations focused on foods rather than specific nutrients to include or limit. The diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy oils while being limited in red meat, dairy, and sweets; it includes high amounts of unprocessed or very minimally processed foods. Although not explicitly stated, following this diet type almost guarantees that you limit you’re intake of nutrients associated with disease risk such as saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar. The foods included in the diet will simultaneuosly provide high amounts of essential vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, as well as antioxidants and compounds with anti-inflammatory effects.
The Mediterranean diet is simplistic and un-complex. The diet is not intended to a strict and specific protocol for eating and may be easily followed using the tips and strategies below.
The Mediterranean diet is plant based. This does not mean that you have to eliminate all animal foods, but vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts & seeds, and/or legumes should be the basis for most meals. These foods provide many essential micronutrients as well as fiber; they are ideal for sustained energy, weight maintenance, and decreased disease risk. You can start by adding more of these food types to your current meals and snacks. Fill half of your plate with a beautiful salad or load your favorite recipe up with vegetables. Top your breakfast with colorful berries. Snack on fresh vegetables and fruit alongside a handful of the nuts or seeds of your liking. Whole grains take time, prepare a batch of your favorite whole grain in advance and add a little to each meal, use these as a side dish or atop a salad. Choose legumes as a healthy, plant based protein and include these in the place or meat several times per week. Try a variety of legumes, black or kidney beans, cannelloni beans, or lentils.
Seafood is included frequently. Aside from plants, fish and shellfish are important sources of protein in the Mediterranean diet. A wide variety of seafood including tuna, salmon, herring, sardines, clams, mussels, and shrimps provide the anti-inflammatory and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acid. Try including seafood at least twice per week. Check out The Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to identify which fish is most appropriate to be included in your diet based on where you are in the world.
Olive oil is the fat of choice. This heart healthy fat is used in cooking, baking, and raw. In the Mediterranean culture just about everything is dressed with olive oil, from cooked vegetables to salads, even meats are prepared in olive oil. Olives are also eaten whole or added to meals for flavor. Extra-virgin olive should be used on salads or as a dressing; however, due olive oil’s instability, high quality canola oil may be a good alternative in high heat cooking. Remember to dress foods rather than douse foods, fats of all kinds (healthy or not) are rich in calories. Other healthy fats can be found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and their oils.
Herbs and spices provide flavor. The Mediterranean culture knows that salt is intended to be a flavor enhancer, not a flavor. Use salt sparingly and instead choose fresh and dried herbs and spices to season your foods. Do some experimenting; there are so many flavors to choose from. Season foods with citrus, garlic, chili, fennel, oregano, nutmeg, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, ginger, basil, turmeric or whatever flavors you enjoy.
Poultry and eggs are eaten moderately. These animal foods are chosen less often than plant based and seafood proteins but are still consumed weekly. Remember to always pair your proteins with plant foods.
Cheese and yogurt are also included. High quality dairy items are found in the Mediterranean diet as a compliment to dishes. Crumble or shred a small amount of cheese onto a dish rather than including it as a main component in a recipe. Choose dairy without added ingredients or sugars.
Meats are eaten sparingly. Red meat and 4-legged animals are still included in the Mediterranean diet but much less often and in very small portions. Try eating these meat items once a week or less and include them as a small side rather than the main dish. Again, plant based foods should always be the main component of a meal.
Even sweets are eaten. Remember, the Mediterranean diet does not exclude any foods entirely. Sugar sweetened desserts may be eaten on occasion, eat your dessert without shame and savor its deliciousness. More often, select fruits as a regular sweet treat. Have some fruit with cheese, nuts, or a bit of dark chocolate
Water is the favorite beverage. Choose water throughout the course of the day every day for proper hydration. Wine is also consumed regularly in the Mediterranean diet but in moderation, up to 5oz. per day for women and 10oz for men.
Another important thing to acknowledge about the Mediterranean diet is that it promotes other lifestyle factors aside from the food itself. When eating, food is enjoyed at a table with others and activity is consistent in the life of individuals in this culture. By sitting down at the table for a meal, undistracted, you are able to engage with the people you eat with as well as with your food. Eating in this manner is a more mindful way of eating; it allows you to simply savor the food you’re eating and promotes the consumption of appropriate portion sizes through increased ability to listen to the hunger cues. Turn off the TV, sit down at the table, share a meal with others, and listen to your body as it becomes satisfied. Activity is also important, from strenuous exercise to yard work, being active daily is a constant in the Mediterranean culture. Begin by going on walks as a family after a meal or starting a small garden.