The Mediterranean diet is a flexible way of eating that emphasizes wholesome plant foods, limits heavily processed foods, such as sweets and processed meats, and embraces eating for pleasure. Hundreds of studies point to the health benefits of eating this way. In honor of International Mediterranean Diet Month, here are the best things to eat on this top-ranked diet.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Before we dive into the foods eaten in the Mediterranean region, let’s discuss why this eating pattern is so healthful. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may protect against strokes and heart attacks, memory decline, type 2 diabetes and depression. It’s also associated with a longer lifespan. On top of all of these benefits, the Mediterranean diet is linked with healthier body weight.
The reason the Mediterranean diet is so helpful is its focus on plant foods. These foods contain fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients that get at the root of most health problems. In a nutshell, substances in plants limit inflammation, promote a diverse and healthy gut environment, and counter free radical damage that contributes to oxidative stress.
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Here are some of the all-star staples of the Mediterranean diet to thank for these impressive health benefits:
Extra virgin olive oil, EVOO, is a pillar of the Mediterranean diet. EVOO is high in monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, antioxidants that guard against free radical damage. When there’s an imbalance of antioxidants to free radicals, it leads to oxidative stress and promotes various diseases. But, a diet rich in antioxidants, such as those found in EVOO and other plant foods, can protect against this occurrence. The compounds in EVOO also have a positive effect on gut health.
To eat like the Mediterraneans, make EVOO your go-to cooking oil. Cook your veggies in it and use it as a condiment over salads, pasta and bread. To retain EVOO’s health properties, buy oil within the expiration date and store it in a cool, dark place. Make sure your EVOO is in a dark bottle since light can diminish the quality.
Fruits and vegetables
You’re probably familiar with the fact that fruits and veggies are nutritional superstars, which is why these gems are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. At mealtimes, Mediterranean eaters fill most of the plate with produce. In the Mediterranean region, fruit is eaten a couple of times a day, and may be featured in desserts (think berries marinated with balsamic vinegar or poached pears with yogurt sauce).
When it comes to veggies, forget about wimpy salads or puny portions on the side of your plate. These foods take center stage in luxe salads and veggie-heavy pasta dishes, grain salads, soups and stews.
Fish are a top animal protein source on the Mediterranean diet, and they’re eaten at least twice a week, which is in line with recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association. According to a landmark study, this amount lowers your chances of dying from heart disease by 36%. Another study found that people who eat fish often live an average of 2.2 years longer than those who skip it. Plus, evidence suggests that fish eaters have a lower risk of depression plus better brain health and thinking skills as they age.
If fish isn’t a regular part of your menu, consider eating it with familiar foods. For instance, add smoked salmon to scrambled eggs, make fish tacos and add shrimp to your favorite stir-fry.
Nuts are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet and each variety has unique superpowers. For example, among nuts, almonds are the richest in vitamin E, Brazil nuts are the highest in magnesium, and walnuts are the only nut that contains an excellent source of the plant-based omega 3 ALA. These plant-based fats are cousins to the omega-3s in fish and they offer potent anti-inflammatory protection. A 2022 review study found that plant-based ALAs can lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure. Study authors also report promising evidence that ALAs may counteract age-related cognitive impairment and protect against type 2 diabetes. And, they say, benefits are associated with about ½ ounce of walnuts per day, though the Mediterranean diet calls for up to two 1-ounce servings of various nuts daily. You can easily get to this amount by adding nuts and seeds (such as chia, pumpkin and sesame seeds) to stir-fries, baked goods, fruit dishes and trail mixes.
Pulses include beans, lentils and chickpeas, and they’re packed with health-promoting nutrients. Eating these foods often promotes better heart health, gut health, longevity and a significantly lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
In keeping with the Mediterranean tradition, try to eat pulses in place of meat at some meals. One strategy is to use them in flavorful dishes that ordinarily call for meat, such as burgers, chili and tomato sauce. On the Mediterranean diet, pulses are eaten at least twice a week, but it’s easy to work them into any meal or snack. Toss white beans into a smoothie or add them to sautéed greens, snack on roasted chickpeas or hummus, and add beans to soups, salads, grainy side dishes and pasta.
Typically, one to two servings of whole grains are eaten at each Mediterranean meal. Evidence suggests that eating whole grains as part of the Mediterranean diet can lower your risk of heart disease and dying from heart disease, as well as reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. According to a 2022 study, the fiber in whole grains is especially protective against disease-promoting inflammation. Note, however, that portion sizes may be smaller than the standard American diet. In 2019, Italian scientists proposed an updated Mediterranean diet pyramid, calling for 90 to 180 grams of whole grain carbohydrates per day, which translates to one to two cups of whole grains at each meal. The rest of the plate is filled with veggies and other plant foods, such as nuts and pulses.
Pasta deserves special attention because it’s a part of Mediterranean cuisine, yet it’s also a refined grain. Overall, refined grains are eaten less often on the Mediterranean diet, but when pasta is eaten, it’s enjoyed with other Mediterranean diet staples, like veggies, pulses and EVOO. Or it may be added to soup or eaten alongside a portion of fish or shellfish. Plus, the portions may be smaller than what you’re used to. However, when eaten in this fashion with wholesome foods, pasta can help you get more protective nutrients in your diet.
4 easy ways to get started on the Mediterranean diet
The only things you need to begin the Mediterranean diet are a well-stocked kitchen and a willingness to try. Here are some other pointers for embracing this lifestyle:
● Aim to fill your plate with 75% plant foods. The rest of your plate can include fish, poultry or eggs, if desired.
● Reduce your intake of red meat, heavily processed foods and sweets. This includes ultra-processed refined grains.
● Take time to sit and appreciate your meals.
● Don’t worry about foods inherent to the Mediterranean region. The plant-based focus of Mediterranean eating can be expanded to suit other cuisines. Start with the plant foods your family enjoys and go from there.