What Is the Mediterranean Diet, Really?
For the past several years, the Mediterranean diet has been ranked as the "best diet" by U.S. News & Work Report. With its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and red wine (yes, wine!), it's no wonder the Mediterranean diet is a favorite among nutritionists and health care professionals. If you're looking to revamp your eating this year without cutting carbs, counting calories, or forcing yourself into ketosis, you might want to give the Mediterranean diet a try.
Before you get all excited: It's not a license to load up on pasta, hummus, and olives. (Although you can totally have 'em in moderation.) The Mediterranean diet does have some rules and adhering to its requirements is the secret to success.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
Although it's well-known, there's no one true definition to the question, "what is the Mediterranean diet?" (That simultaneously makes it easier and harder to follow.) In essence, it compiles the healthy eating patterns of people from Mediterranean cultures into one diet. There is no set amount of fat, carbs, protein, or calories you can eat in a day, which is why many health care professionals consider the Mediterranean diet to be less of a "diet" and more of a way of life. (Related: Mediterranean Diet Cookbooks to Inspire Your Cooking)
Which Foods Can You Eat On the Mediterranean Diet?
Hard rules are lacking with this diet, but the following groups of foods are encouraged.
Plant-based foods: The main components of the Mediterranean diet are fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes. Unlike other diets that limit starchy foods or fruits, there aren't any restrictions on the types of plant-based foods you can eat on the Mediterranean diet. Try to "eat the rainbow" (choose fruits and vegetables of all different colors) to ensure you're getting a variety of nutrients and phytochemicals.
Whole grains: The number-one ranked diet encourages you to eat grains. (Let that sink in for a second.) In other words, you may have to adjust your thinking about carbs. This doesn't mean eating a baguette every day (sorry). But make sure your diet includes whole grains, such as oats, brown rice, farro, kamut, spelt, bulgur, and barley. (See: Why — and Which — Healthy Carbs Belong In Your Diet)
Fish: The Mediterranean diet recommends eating fish at least twice each week, and data from the United States Department of Agriculture states that most Americans struggle to meet this recommendation. "I find that many people don't eat more fish because they're not sure what type to buy or how to cook it," says Deanna Segrave-Daly, R.D., blogger and co-author of The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Segrave-Daly recommends fresh and frozen varieties of salmon, cod, tilapia, flounder, and tuna. "Canned seafood such as canned tuna, salmon, shrimp, crab, and sardines are affordable and practical options as well," she adds. If you're not sure how to cook fish, pan-searing is always an easy method, as well as making patties or burgers (such as these salmon potato cakes).
Poultry, eggs, and dairy: Americans eat plenty of poultry, but eggs and dairy don't always get the love they deserve. But guess where Greek yogurt originated? Yep, the Mediterranean! Poultry, eggs, and dairy add protein, B vitamins, vitamin D, and calcium to the diet, so don't shy away from these foods. (More on the importance of these nutrients and Mediterranean diet benefits below.)
Healthy fats: The Mediterranean diet also encourages the consumption of olive oil, nuts, avocados, and seeds — all of which provide monosaturated or "good" fats. (Related: The Expert-Approved Guide to Good Fats vs. Bad Fats)
Red wine (in moderation): Arguably the best part about the Mediterranean diet is the suggestion to drink red wine for its antioxidant benefits. Just remember that the recommended serving is 1 glass per night — not an entire bottle to yourself during book club. (Sorry, again.)
Herbs and spices: Lastly, the Mediterranean diet encourages the use of herbs and spices to flavor food. Stock up your spice cabinet and buy a basil plant to grow on your windowsill. (See also: How to Start—and Maintain—an Indoor Garden for Fresh Produce at Home)
Which Foods Should You Avoid On the Mediterranean Diet?
The best way to answer the question "what is the Mediterranean diet, exactly?" is to break down the food it does and doesn't include. By now, you hopefully know that the Mediterranean diet is all about whole foods (see above). And though it's not considered a "diet" in the true sense of the word, the Mediterranean diet still has some restrictions.
"While it's a good idea to move away from highly processed foods (i.e. shelf-stable baked goods), there are actually a lot of minimally processed and convenience foods which fit into the Mediterranean diet," says Serena Ball, M.S., R.D., the other co-author of The 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.
Ditch the sugary bottled sauces, packaged sweets, and chips, and embrace "the jarred tomato sauce, boxed pasta, canned tuna, frozen veggies, canned fruit, whole-grain crackers, and canned beans," says Ball.
Mediterranean Diet Benefits
Time and time again, science has shown that following this eating pattern can be beneficial for health. This short list showcases some of the many benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Supports Heart Health
Heart diseases are the number-one killer in the United States. Luckily, there's ample research on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for your heart. In one study, participants saw lower blood pressure readings after following the Mediterranean diet for just six months. And a review found that adherence to the diet can reduce the risk of several heart problems by up to 40 percent.
Reduces Risk of Cancer
Studies suggest that people living in the Mediterranean region have lower incidences of cancer than those in Northern Europe or the United States. Researchers attribute this to dietary habits and suggest that the Mediterranean diet may prevent cancer development, according to a comprehensive review.
Prevent Cognitive Decline
Another benefit of the Mediterranean diet: better brain power. Eating healthy fats (a key parts of the Mediterranean diet) has been found to improve cognitive function, slow the rate at which the brain declines, and reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's disease, according to a 2016 scientific review.
Promotes Weight Loss
Helps You Stay on Budget
Although not necessarily related to your health, affordability is just as much of a benefit of the Mediterranean diet as its ability to, say, stave off chronic disease (and boost your gut microbiome!). "You may be surprised how budget-friendly it is to adopt a Mediterranean lifestyle," says Ball. "No special foods are needed; all ingredients can be found in regular supermarkets. Affordable pantry staples are the foundation of a Mediterranean diet — including nuts and seeds, olives, olive oil, lentils, any canned fish, and inexpensive proteins like eggs, plain yogurt, some cheese, and/or chicken," she adds. (If you need a little inspo, check out how one Shape editor proved that healthy eating is totally doable — and still filling — on just $5 a day.)
Common Misconceptions About the Mediterranean Diet
Although the positives of the Mediterranean diet far outweigh the negatives, it's not exactly easy for everyone to follow. Cutting back on processed foods and increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and dairy may be a difficult change without clear rules. The lack of guidelines about calories, carbs, protein, and fat can also be confusing. (That's great news, considering you should think twice about starting a restrictive diet, anyway.)
If you're intrigued by the Mediterranean diet but don't know where to start, meet with a registered dietitian.
Another often overlooked aspect of the Mediterranean diet is that the behaviors are just as important as food choices. The people of the Mediterranean emphasize the importance of cooking your own meals, coming together at mealtime to enjoy good company and excellent food, savoring the taste of your food, and choosing seasonal ingredients-each of which has potential health benefits on their own. (Related: Can the Mediterranean Diet Make You Happier?)
Lastly, the diet is not a guaranteed path to magically shedding pounds; the studies that resulted in weight loss included calorie restriction. That means omitting the red wine most nights and limiting your portions of whole grains and healthy fats. If you're using the Mediterranean diet to lose weight, a day of eating may look like this:
Breakfast: Omelet with veggies or oatmeal with fruits, milk, and nuts
Lunch: Big salad with tons of veggies, protein, oil-based dressing or a bowl of vegetable and bean soup with whole-grain crackers
Snack: Crunchy roasted chickpeas with a hard-boiled egg
Dinner: Piece of salmon with 1/2 cup whole grain and roasted veggies
Dessert: Piece of fruit and 1 tablespoon of nut butter