When it comes to nutrition and nutrition, all the experts seem to only agree that there is no generally accepted consensus on the best diet for optimal health. There are so many schools of thought about what foods to eat and what not, how best to lose weight, what proportions of the various macronutrients to consume, and so on. From Paleo to Vegan, Whole30 to Keto, the variety of diets is not only diverse but also contradicting, with some popular diets demonizing the very foods and nutrients that are highlighted in others.
Given the sheer number of options, the complexity of the characteristics of each diet, and the conflicting nutritional information and principles used to justify each diet, it’s no wonder so many of us are confused about what to eat and what diet ultimately ends up being best is. Even so, nutritionists, doctors, dietitians, and the medical community in general disagree over much of the nutritional advice, with the majority of experts routinely citing the Mediterranean diet as one of the healthiest diets out there.
Compared to many other popular diets, the Mediterranean Diet is also one of the most well-studied, research-based eating plans, with much evidence of disease-relieving effects and health benefits, and consistently among the top two or three diets in the annual ranking US News and World Report of the Best Diets.
Hence, among a seemingly endless pool of potential diets, the Mediterranean diet stands out from the crowd and deserves consideration if you are looking to revise your diet to improve your health. If you’ve never heard of the Mediterranean diet or need a refresher on what it specifically entails, read on for our introductory Mediterranean diet guide that will help you learn all of the basics you need to eat healthily and to feel better.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional eating habits that were practiced in the Mediterranean region – particularly Greece and Italy – in the 1960s, as these cultures had particularly low rates of lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. The Mediterranean Diet is a little more flexible and less specific than some popular diets because the Mediterranean region is vast and there are many differences in eating habits and nuances between the very foods that each culture eats.
Therefore, rather than prescribing specific macronutrient ratios or including comprehensive lists of included and excluded foods, the Mediterranean diet generally encourages the consumption of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and more virgin olive oil. The focus is on eating whole, natural foods, especially those based on plants, and avoiding processed foods and excessive meat.
Read more: Best Olive Oils
What Are The Benefits Of The Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is one of the best-studied popular diets. It has been shown to offer numerous health benefits, aid in weight loss, and reduce the risk of a wide variety of lifestyle diseases. For example, a five-year study compared the Mediterranean diet with olive oil, the Mediterranean diet with nuts, and a control diet. Caloric intake was the same for all three diets, but the two iterations of the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 30% over the duration of the study.
The Mediterranean diet was particularly effective compared to the control diet in lowering disease risk factors such as weight, high blood pressure, and waist circumference in participants with high blood pressure, lipid problems, or obesity. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, all-cause mortality, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. It has also been shown to be more effective at losing weight compared to a low-fat diet.
In addition to the reported health benefits, most people consider the Mediterranean diet to be practical and doable. Since it is less restrictive and less militant than many diets, permanent adherence is often better. Since any diet can only be truly successful if it is actually followed over time, the fact that more and more followers of the Mediterranean diet tend to stick to it cannot be emphasized enough.
Because the Mediterranean diet is based on healthy, sustainable eating habits, it can help dieters really change their eating habits rather than viewing their new food options as temporary until weight loss is achieved.
What foods can you eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of foods that are indigenous to the Mediterranean area as well as those that are traditionally consumed by the cultures living there. The diet doesn’t have specific calorie limits and doesn’t even emphasize counting calories or macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats). Instead, the focus should be on a plant-based diet, with the food being supplied as completely and naturally as possible.
For example, eating whole, ripe tomatoes would be preferable to canned tomato soup made from concentrate or even canned tomato puree. Although the Mediterranean diet is plant-oriented, fresh fish is recommended and eggs are allowed in moderation. Most of what you eat should consist of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fresh fish, nuts, and olive oil.
While the list is far from complete, here are some of the best foods for the Mediterranean diet:
- Vegetables: Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, broccolini, artichokes, zucchini, cucumber, onions, cauliflower, tomatoes *, peppers * (* technically fruits)
- Fruit: Pears, apples, melons, oranges, berries, lemons, figs
- Tubers: Beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, kohlrabi
- Legumes: Lentils, beans, peas, peanuts
- Full grain: Buckwheat, whole grain, rye, brown rice, whole grain oats
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hazelnuts, cashews, flax seeds
- Legumes: Beans, peas, lentils, legumes, peanuts, chickpeas, etc.
- Fish and seafood: Salmon, mackerel, sardines, scallops, mussels, clams, trout, tuna, shrimp
- Healthy fats: Olives, olive oil, avocados
- Herbs and spices: Basil, oregano, mint, garlic, cinnamon, pepper
- red wine
- Unsweetened tea
The following foods can be consumed in moderation, perhaps a few times a week:
- Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck
- Dairy: Cheese, natural yogurt, milk, kefir
Red meat can be eaten very sparingly, maybe once a month.
Read more: Best canned sardines
Which foods are not allowed in the Mediterranean Diet?
Most processed and packaged foods are not allowed in the Mediterranean diet. Basically, the shorter the list of ingredients on the food label, the better. The following categories of foods should be avoided:
- Refined Grains: White bread, refined pasta, bagels, granola bars, pastries, English muffins
- Processed meat: Hot dogs, sausages, lunch meat
- Sweetened foods: Ice cream, jelly, oatmeal packets, most cereal boxes, pop tarts, candy, juices, sodas
- Refined oils and trans fats: Canola oil, soybean oil, margarine
- Artificial sweeteners
- “Diet” foods: Low-fat cookies, sugar-free jello, light ice cream
Again, the goal is to eat foods in their most complete, natural state.
Example of a Mediterranean nutrition plan
Curious what a day of eating on the Mediterranean diet might look like? Below we share an example meal plan:
- Breakfast: Overnight oats made from whole oatmeal with a topping of Greek yogurt, mixed berries, sliced almonds and a pinch of flaxseed.
- Having lunch: Grilled mixed vegetables over bulgar with a dash of olive oil and pumpkin seeds
- Dinner: Large salad with a mixture of spinach and arugula, tomatoes, cucumber, avocado. Feta cheese and a small fillet of salmon or sardine
- Dessert: Fresh peach