What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
Fish, like salmon, is a staple in the Mediterranean diet.
The way we think about the word “diet”today is something borne of restriction that helps you lose weight. The Mediterranean diet couldn’t be further from that. Rather, it’s a heart-healthy diet that includes the food staples of people who live in the region around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Croatia, and Italy.
You’ll find that in their meals, they emphasize a plant-based eating approach, loaded with vegetables and healthy fats, including olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fish. It’s a diet known for being heart-healthy. (1) “This diet is rich in fruits and vegetables,whole grains, seafood, nuts and legumes, and olive oil,” says Nancy L.Cohen, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. On this plan, you’ll limit or avoid red meat, sugary foods, and dairy(though small amounts like yogurt and cheese are eaten).
Eating this way means you also have little room for processed fare. When you look at a plate, it should be bursting with color; traditional proteins like chicken may be more of a side dish compared with the produce packing the plate.
One thing you’ll find people love about the Mediterranean diet is the allowance of moderate amounts of red wine.“Moderate” means 5 ounces (oz) or less each day for women (one glass) and no more than 10 oz daily for men (two glasses). (1) Above all else, these meals are eaten in the company of friends and family; strong social ties are a cornerstone of healthful lives — and a healthful diet. Here, food is celebrated.
How Does the Mediterranean Diet Work Exactly?
The Mediterranean diet wasn’t built as a weight loss plan — in fact, because it wasn’t developed at all, but is a style of eating of a region of people that evolved naturally over centuries,there’s no official way to follow it. But it’s popular because it’s a well-rounded approach to eating that isn’t restrictive. Two of the five BlueZones — areas where people live longer and have lower rates of disease — are located in Mediterranean cities (Ikaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy). (2) These places are known for having some of the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer worldwide. (3)
What Are the Potential and Known Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is most famous for its benefit to heart health, decreasing the risk of heart disease by, in part, lowering levels of “bad” LDLcholesterol, and reducing mortality from cardiovascular conditions. It’s also been credited with a lower likelihood of certain cancers, like breastcancer, as well as conditions like Parkinson’sdisease and Alzheimer’sdisease. (1)
Emerging evidence suggests that eating this way may offer protective effects for those with and at risk for type 2diabetes. For one, Mediterranean eating improves blood sugar control in those already diagnosed with the condition, suggesting it can be a good way to manage the disease. What’s more, given those with diabetes are at increased odds for cardiovascular disease, adopting this diet can help improve their heart health, according to a paper published in April 2014 in the journal Nutrients.(4)
Finally, people eat about nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day on a Mediterranean diet. (1) Produce packs an array of disease-fighting antioxidants, and people who fill their diet with these foods have lower risk of disease. Yet as the National Institutes of Health points out, it’s not known if it’s the antioxidants or other compounds(or general healthy eating patterns) that are responsible for these advantages.
Can Following the Mediterranean Diet Help With Weight Loss?
As a traditional way of eating for many cultures worldwide, the Mediterranean diet wasn’t designed for weight loss. It just so happens that one of the healthiest diets around the globe also is good for keeping your weight down.
Yet it’s an incredibly well-rounded way to lose weight that ditches gimmicks and doesn’t require calorie or macro nutrient counting as other diets do. And with the emphasis on healthy fat,it’s satisfying, too. That said, while the 2018 U.S. News & World Report Best Diets ranked the Mediterranean diet as being tied for first with the DASHdiet overall, it ranks 14 in their list of Best Weight-Loss Diets. (3) The reviewers note that it’s not a slam dunk, and all depends on how you eat. Even healthy diets like the Mediterranean aren’t free-for-all eating plans.
A Mediterranean Diet Food List: What to Eat and Avoid
When you’re looking to start to follow the Mediterranean diet, you’ll rely heavily on the following foods.
Benefits Replacing foods high in saturated fats (like butter) with plant sources high in monounsaturated fatty acids, like olive oil, may help lower the risk of heart disease by 19 percent,according research — including an article published in March 2018 in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Benefits It packs lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that is associated with a reduced risk of some cancers, like prostate and breast. Other components in tomatoes may help reduce the risk of blood clots, thereby protecting against cardiovascular disease,according to a review published in December 2013 in the journal Annual Review of Food Science and Technology. (9,10)
Benefits The fatty fish is a major source of omega-3 fatty acids. For good heart health, the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two fish meals per week,particularly fatty fish like salmon.
Benefits Rich in heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, these nuts may also favorably impact your gut microbiome (and thus improve digestive health), as well as lower LDL cholesterol, according to a study published in May 2018 in the Journal of Nutrition.
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
Benefits The main ingredient in hummus, chickpeas pack an impressive amount of fiber (more than half of a woman’s 25 g daily quota), as well as iron, zinc, folate, and magnesium.
Benefits Leafy greens, like arugula, are eaten in abundance under this eating approach.Mediterranean-like diets that include frequent (more than six times a week)consumption of leafy greens have been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in September 2015 in the journal Alzheimer’sand Dementia.
Benefits: This fruit, in all its bright red glory, packs powerful polyphenols that act as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It’s also been suggested that pomegranates may have anti-cancer properties, too, according to a paper published in March 2014 in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research.
Benefits One small study published in April 2018 in the Journal of Nutrition suggested that swapping one-half of your serving of high-glycemic starches (like rice)with lentils helps lower blood glucose by 20 percent.
Benefits Whole grains like farro are a staple of this diet. This grain offers a stellar source of filling fiber and protein. Eating whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of a host of disease, like stroke, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and colorectal cancer.
Benefits Dairy is eaten in limited amounts, but these foods serve to supply an excellent source of calcium. Opting for low- or nonfat versions decreases the amount of saturated fat you’re consuming.
More Mediterranean Diet-Friendly Foods
What Are the Pros and Cons of a Mediterranean Diet?
When you’re deciding whether a Mediterranean Diet is right for you, consider these pros and cons:
It’s easy to stick with. A diet only works if it’s doable. That means everyone in your family can eat it and you can eat in this style no matter where you go (to a restaurant for dinner,to a family event). With its flavors and variety of foods that don’t cut out any food group, this is one such eating plan. “It is an appealing diet that one can stay with for a lifetime,” Dr. Cohen says.
You can eat what you love. It’s evident that with such a variety of whole, fresh foods available to you as options, it’s easy to build meals based on the diet. And, you don’t have to eliminate your favorites, either. They may just require some tweaks. For instance, rather than a sausage and pepperoni pizza, you’d choose one piled high with veggies and topped with some cheese. You can also fit in a lot of food into one meal. Filling up on fresh foods like fruits and vegetables will allow you to build volume into meals for fewer calories.
It’s low in saturated fat. You’re not going to feel hungry eating this way, because you can build in a variety of healthy fats. But by limiting large amounts of red or processed meats and relying heavily on monounsaturated fatty acids, like avocado, nuts, or olive oil, you’ll keep saturated fat levels low. These fats don’t lead to high cholesterol the same way saturated fats do. Healthful sources of fat include olive oil, fish oils, and nut-based oils, Cohen explains.
It reduces risk of disease. A growing number of studies suggest that people who follow a Mediterranean diet are less likely to die of heart disease than people who follow a typical American diet.(1) What’s more, evidence is emerging that shows people who eat this way have a lower risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, and some head and neck cancers, according to studies published in September 2016 in the British Journal of Cancer and in February 2018 in the Journal of Urology.
Milk is limited. There are no long-term risks to eating Mediterranean, says Cohen. But you may be put off if you’re big on eating a lot of milk and rely on it to get all the calcium you need. You’ll get to eat cheese and yogurt, but in smaller amounts. “To get enough calcium in the diet without milk, one would need to eat enough yogurt and cheese, or seek nondairy calcium sources,” says Cohen. If needed, drink skim milk. Otherwise, nondairy calcium sources include fortified almond milk,sardines, kale, and tofu made with calcium sulfate. (30)
You still have to cap alcohol. The hallmark of a Mediterranean diet is that drinking red wine socially is thought to be one reason why the diet is so healthy. But women should still stick to one glass, and men two glasses. If you have a history of breast cancer in the family, know that any alcohol consumption raises that risk. In that case,talk to your doctor to find out what’s right for you.
Fat isn’t unlimited either. As with wine, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing when it comes to healthy fats. The American Heart Association points out that while the Mediterranean diet meets heart-healthy diet limits for saturated fat, your total fat consumption could be greater than the daily recommended amount if you aren’t careful. That’s 65 g per day.
You have to find time to cook. While you don’t have to spend hours in your kitchen, you will need to cook because the diet is all about working with delicious fresh food. You may have a learning curve as you build these skills.
What Are the Potential Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Mediterranean Diet?
As has become obvious, there are numerous potential benefits from adopting a Mediterranean diet. Over the long term, these health effects may be more pronounced and can include better brain health by slowing cognitive decline and lowering risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia’s. (33)
It also may help stave off chronic diseases, like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as act protectively against certain cancers. (34) The diet is also a boon to mental health, as it’s associated with reduced odds of depression. (34)There’s even some data to suggest it can be supportive in relieving symptoms of arthritis, according to a paper published in April 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. (35)
In the short term, you may lose a modest amount of weight over a year span and are likely to keep it off it you continue to eat following the diet. (6) If eating in the Mediterranean style prompts you to consume more fruits and vegetables, you’ll not only feel better physically, but your mental health will get a lift, too. Research shows that people who eat more raw fruits and veggies (particularly dark leafy greens like spinach, fresh berries, and cucumber) have fewer symptoms of depression, a better mood, and more life satisfaction. (36)
Frequently Asked Questions about the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is one of the most praised eating philosophies out there, so it’s no surprise there’s still some confusion surrounding what the diet plan’s all about. Here are the answers to some common questions about the Mediterranean diet.
Q: What is the Mediterranean diet?
A: The Mediterranean diet is an eating approach that people who live in regions around the Mediterranean Sea have naturally developed. It’s rich in fresh, whole foods (olive oil, nuts, seeds, veggies, fruits, and fish),and low in red meat and processed fare. (1)
Q: What foods are not allowed on the Mediterranean diet?
A: The Mediterranean diet isn’t a restrictive fad diet that focuses on eliminating a bunch of foods from your diet. That said, you’ll want to limit your intake of foods high in saturated fat, as well as red meat, butter, and whole dairy milk. You can drink red wine on the Mediterranean diet, but you’ll want to do so only in moderation. (1)
Q: Is peanut butter part of the Mediterranean diet?
A: Indeed! Peanuts are allowed on the Mediterranean diet, as is their nut butter counterpart. (37) But like any other type of fat, be sure to eat peanut butter in moderation. The Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 65 g of fat per day. Two tablespoons of peanut butter contains about 16 g of fat.
A Final Word on the Mediterranean Diet
For better health, especially heart health, steady weight loss, and a tasty way of eating that won’t leave you feeling deprived, the Mediterranean diet is a plan worth trying.
Q: What is a Mediterranean diet meal plan?
A: A detailed menu follows but generally, you’ll want to make plants and whole grains the stars of your plate.If you look at a Mediterranean diet food pyramid (above), sweets are up top(indicating they should make up only a small part of your diet), followed by meat and dairy, and then fish. Last are fruit, veggies, and whole grains(suggesting they can be eaten liberally). Also, enjoying food with friends and family is a tenet of the eating approach, so make your meals a social affair!
A 7-Day Sample Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan
Breakfast Greek yogurt topped with berries and a drizzle of honey
Snack Handful of almonds
Lunch Tuna on a bed of greens with a vinaigrette
Snack Small bowl of olives
Dinner Small chicken breast over a warm grain salad made with sauteed zucchini, tomato, and farrow
Breakfast Whole-grain toast with a soft-boiled egg and a piece of fruit
Snack Handful of pistachios
Lunch Lentil salad with roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, capers, and balsamic vinaigrette
Snack Hummus with dipping veggies
Dinner Salmon with quinoa and sautéed garlicky greens
Breakfast Whipped ricotta topped with walnuts and fruit
Snack Roasted chickpeas
Lunch Tabbouleh salad with whole grain pita
Snack Caprese skewers (tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil vinaigrette)
Dinner Roasted chicken, gnocchi, and a large salad with vinaigrette
Breakfast Fruit with a couple of slices of Brie
Snack Cashews and dried fruit
Lunch Vegetable soup with whole-grain roll
Snack Tasting plate with olives, a couple slices of cheese, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes
Dinner White fish cooked in olive oil and garlic, zucchini, and a sweet potato
Breakfast Omelet made with tomatoes, fresh herbs, and olives
Snack A couple of dates stuffed with almond butter
Lunch A salad topped with white beans, veggies, olives, and a small piece of chicken
Snack A peach and yogurt
Dinner Grilled shrimp skewers with roasted Brussels sprouts
Breakfast Eggs scrambled with veggies and chives and topped with feta with a slice of whole-grain bread
Snack Greek yogurt
Lunch A quinoa bowl topped with sliced chicken, feta, and veggies
Snack Hummus with veggies
Dinner Grilled seafood, roasted fennel and broccoli, arugula salad, and quinoa
Breakfast Mediterranean/Veggie frittata
Snack Handful of berries
Lunch A plate of smoked salmon, capers, lemon, whole grain crackers, and raw veggies
Snack Mashed avocado with lemon and salt, with cucumbers for dipping
Dinner Pasta with red sauce (tomatoes, garlic, onion, seasonings)and mussels