The Mediterranean Diet - HelpGuide.org (2023)

healthy eating

A Mediterranean diet can help fight against heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and cognitive decline. Here's how to make the switch.

The Mediterranean Diet - HelpGuide.org (1)

What is a “Mediterranean diet?”

When you think about Mediterranean food, your mind may go to pizza and pasta from Italy, or lamb chops from Greece, but these dishes don’t fit into the healthy dietary plans advertised as “Mediterranean.” A true Mediterranean diet is based on the region’s traditional fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seafood, olive oil, and dairy—with perhaps a glass or two of red wine. That’s how the inhabitants of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy ate circa 1960, when their rates of chronic disease were among the lowest in the world and their life expectancy among the highest, despite having only limited medical services.

And the real Mediterranean diet is about more than just eating fresh, wholesome food. Daily physical activity and sharing meals with others are vital elements. Together, they can have a profound effect on your mood and mental health and help you foster a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.

Of course, making changes to your diet is rarely easy, especially if you’re trying to move away from the convenience of processed and takeout foods. But the Mediterranean diet can be an inexpensive as well as a satisfying and very healthy way to eat. Making the switch from pepperoni and pasta to fish and avocados may take some effort, but you could soon be on a path to a healthier and longer life.

Health benefits of a Mediterranean diet

A traditional Mediterranean diet consisting of large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish, and olive oil—coupled with physical activity—can reduce your risk of serious mental and physical health problems by:

Preventing heart disease and strokes. Following a Mediterranean diet limits your intake of refined breads, processed foods, and red meat, and encourages drinking red wine instead of hard liquor—all factors that can help prevent heart disease and stroke.

Keeping you agile. If you're an older adult, the nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about 70 percent.

Reducing the risk of Alzheimer's. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may improve cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and overall blood vessel health, which in turn may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Halving the risk of Parkinson's disease. The high levels of antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet can prevent cells from undergoing a damaging process called oxidative stress, thereby cutting the risk of Parkinson's disease in half.

Increasing longevity. By reducing your risk of developing heart disease or cancer with the Mediterranean diet, you're reducing your risk of death at any age by 20%.

Protecting against type 2 diabetes. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber which digests slowly, prevents huge swings in blood sugar, and can help you maintain a healthy weight.

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Myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet

Following a Mediterranean diet has many benefits, but there are still a lot of misconceptions on exactly how to take advantage of the lifestyle to lead a healthier, longer life. The following are some myths and facts about the Mediterranean diet.

Myths and facts of a Mediterranean diet
Myth 1: It costs a lot to eat this way.

Fact: If you're creating meals out of beans or lentils as your main source of protein, and sticking with mostly plants and whole grains, then the Mediterranean diet is less expensive than serving dishes of packaged or processed foods.

Myth 2: If one glass of wine is good for your heart, then three glasses is three times as healthy.

Fact: Moderate amounts of red wine (one drink a day for women; two for men) certainly has unique health benefits for your heart, but drinking too much has the opposite effect. Anything more than two glasses of wine can actually be bad for your heart.

Myth 3: Eating large bowls of pasta and bread is the Mediterranean way.

Fact: Typically, Mediterraneans don't eat a huge plate of pasta the way Americans do. Instead, pasta is usually a side dish with about a 1/2-cup to 1-cup serving size. The rest of their plate consists of salads, vegetables, fish or a small portion of organic, grass-fed meat, and perhaps one slice of bread.

Myth 4: The Mediterranean diet is only about the food.

Fact: The food is a huge part of the diet, yes, but don't overlook the other ways the Mediterraneans live their lives. When they sit down for a meal, they don't sit in front of a television or eat in a rush; they sit down for a relaxed, leisurely meal with others, which may be just as important for your health as what's on your plate. Mediterraneans also enjoy plenty of physical activity.

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How to make the change

If you're feeling daunted by the thought of changing your eating habits to a Mediterranean diet, here are some suggestions to get you started:

Eat lots of vegetables. Try a simple plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese, or load your thin crust pizza with peppers and mushrooms instead of sausage and pepperoni. Salads, soups, and crudité platters are also great ways to load up on vegetables.

Always eat breakfast. Fruit, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods are a great way to start your day, keeping you pleasantly full for hours.

(Video) PART 1: EASIEST WAY to Follow the World's Best MEDITERRANEAN Diet

Eat seafood twice a week. Fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, sablefish (black cod), and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.

Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. If it's helpful, you can jump on the “Meatless Mondays” trend of foregoing meat on the first day of the week. Or simply pick a day where you build meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Once you get the hang of it, try two nights a week.

Enjoy dairy products in moderation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 10% of your daily calories (about 200 calories for most people). That still allows you to enjoy dairy products such as natural (unprocessed) cheese and Greek or plain yogurt.

For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Instead of ice cream, cake or other baked goods, opt for strawberries, fresh figs, grapes, or apples.

Use good fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados are great sources of healthy fats for your daily meals.

What to do about mercury in fish

Despite all the health benefits of seafood, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of pollutants, including the toxic metal mercury. These guidelines can help you make the safest choices.

  • The concentration of mercury and other pollutants increases in larger fish, so it's best to avoid eating large fish like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel.
  • Most adults can safely eat about 12 ounces (two 6-ounce servings) of other types of cooked seafood a week.
  • Pay attention to local seafood advisories to learn if fish you've caught is safe to eat.
  • For women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, and children aged 12 and younger, choose fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, Pollock, or catfish. Because of its higher mercury content, eat no more than 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

Make mealtimes a social experience

The simple act of talking to a friend or loved over the dinner table can play a big role in relieving stress and boosting mood. Eating with others can also prevent overeating, making it as healthy for your waistline as it is for your outlook. Switch off the TV and computer, put away your smartphone, and connect to someone over a meal.

Gather the family together and stay up to date with each other's daily lives. Regular family meals provide comfort to kids and are a great way to monitor their eating habits as well.

Share meals with others to expand your social network. If you live alone, cook a little extra and invite a friend, coworker, or neighbor to join you.

Cook with others. Invite a friend to share shopping and cooking responsibilities for a Mediterranean meal. Cooking with others can be a fun way to deepen relationships and splitting the costs can make it cheaper for both of you.

Quick start to a Mediterranean diet

The easiest way to make the change to a Mediterranean diet is to start with small steps. You can do this by:

  • Sautéing food in olive oil instead of butter.
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables by enjoying salad as a starter or side dish, snacking on fruit, and adding veggies to other dishes.
  • Choosing whole grains instead of refined breads, rice, and pasta.
  • Substituting fish for red meat at least twice per week.
  • Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk from 2% or whole milk
Instead of this:Try this Mediterranean option:
Chips, pretzels, crackers and ranch dipCarrots, celery, broccoli and salsa
White rice with stir-fried meatQuinoa with stir-fried vegetables
Sandwiches with white bread or rollsSandwich fillings in whole-wheat tortillas
Ice creamPudding made with skim or 1% milk

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, M.A.

(Video) Cooking the Mediterranean Way – Part 1

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    FAQs

    How many eggs a day on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Based on their high cholesterol content, the Mediterranean Diet Foundation recommends to consume up to 4 eggs per week, as a healthy alternative to fish or meat [7], and the same amount (2–4 eggs per week) was indicated in the latest Italian dietary guidelines [8].

    What foods are restricted on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    Eat: Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, healthy fats and oils. Avoid: Processed foods, sugar, soft drinks, grains, most dairy products, legumes, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, margarine and trans fats.

    Can you have a cheat day on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    Yes, you can cheat on the Mediterranean Diet. Why? Because this is a diet of moderation, it is a lifestyle. Even if you just start working the principles of the diet into your life a few meals each week, you are improving your eating habits, and in fact, you are doing the Mediterranean Diet.

    How many calories should I eat on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    Among the Mediterranean diet followers, women ate a maximum of 1,500 calories per day and men's calorie count was restricted to 1,800 calories per day, with the goal of having no more than 35 percent of their calories from fat. The calorie restrictions were the same for those on the low-fat diet.

    Can you eat potatoes on Mediterranean diet? ›

    What kinds of foods are included in the Mediterranean diet? You will eat mostly plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, potatoes, whole-grains, beans, nuts, seeds and extra virgin olive oil.

    Which bread is best for Mediterranean diet? ›

    You can still enjoy bread as part of the Mediterranean Diet, just swap your white bread for whole grains. Whole grain breads and pastas contain more fiber, vitamins and minerals. Whole wheat pitas are a healthier option as they are usually lower in calories.

    What is a typical Mediterranean breakfast? ›

    Spain and Italy: toasted bread + soft cheese + fresh fruit or freshly squeezed fruit juice. Greece: paximadia (bread made from whole wheat, chickpea, and barley flour) + olives + cheese. Syria: tahini yogurt with chickpeas + pickles + sliced radishes. Morocco: fried egg in olive oil + soft cheese + olives + flatbread.

    Is peanut butter OK on Mediterranean diet? ›

    And as plant-based protein sources that are high in good and unsaturated fats, peanuts and peanut butter are a natural fit within Mediterranean and Flexitarian ways of eating.

    What cheese is OK on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Cheese & Yogurt

    Dairy products common to the traditional Mediterranean Diet include: brie, chevre, corvo, feta, haloumi, manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, ricotta, yogurt (including Greek yogurt).

    Is oatmeal OK on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Oatmeal is a safe option that can be dressed up for breakfast to make it better. Try adding a variety of nuts and fruit to improve the taste of plain oatmeal. Consider making it with honey, diced apples and chopped walnuts. Strawberries, blueberries and blackberries are also good options.

    Can you eat rice on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Is rice on the Mediterranean diet? Yes, rice is a staple of the Mediterranean diet. It's often eaten as a pilaf with herbs and spices rather than plain. For example, you can try Mediterranean Yellow Rice or Chickpea Rice Pilaf.

    How much chicken can you eat on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    Choose lean poultry in moderate, 3- to 4-ounce portions. Save red meat for occasional consumption or use meat as a condiment, accompanied by lots of vegetables, as in stews, stir-fries, and soups. Eat more fish, aiming for two to three servings a week.

    Can you have coffee on Mediterranean diet? ›

    You should drink a few cups of coffee a day with your diet to maximize the benefits of every food group. Mixing a healthy diet with coffee will keep your body working like a well-oiled machine.

    What pasta is good for Mediterranean diet? ›

    The Mediterranean diet encourages upping your intake of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seafood, and extra-virgin olive oil. Therefore, pasta (whole grain pasta, in particular), can absolutely be part of a Mediterranean diet. Chickpea noodles are also encouraged in Mediterranean pasta recipes.

    Can you eat canned tuna on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    Canned tuna is a great Mediterranean Diet food. It is rich in protein, low in fat and calories, and is an excellent source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, which science has shown to improve heart health and brain function.

    Can I eat french fries on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    Finally, potatoes are also low in saturated fat. This makes them a great food to choose if you're following a Mediterranean diet, which generally encourages foods with less saturated fat. Combined with their good nutritional profile, potatoes are a healthy food to include within a Mediterranean diet.

    What kind of yogurt can you eat on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Opt for nutrient-dense foods, like Greek yogurt

    The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating foods in their most nutrient-dense forms, which makes Greek yogurt a particularly good option for those seeking protein.

    Can you eat tortilla chips on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Thanks to Olive Tomato, chips are fair game on the Mediterranean diet.

    Can you eat butter on the Mediterranean diet? ›

    The Mediterranean diet is high in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Foods not allowed include processed red meats, heavily processed foods, refined grains, alcohol, butter, and refined/processed/hydrogenated oils.

    Do Mediterranean people eat eggs? ›

    Eggs are not only a staple of the Mediterranean Diet, but they also play a role in weight management, muscle strength, healthy pregnancy, brain function, eye health and more.

    What is a typical breakfast in the Mediterranean? ›

    Spain and Italy: toasted bread + soft cheese + fresh fruit or freshly squeezed fruit juice. Greece: paximadia (bread made from whole wheat, chickpea, and barley flour) + olives + cheese. Syria: tahini yogurt with chickpeas + pickles + sliced radishes. Morocco: fried egg in olive oil + soft cheese + olives + flatbread.

    Are eggs inflammatory? ›

    Consuming eggs regularly can lead to an increased amount of swelling and joint pain. The yolks contain arachidonic acid, which helps trigger inflammation in the body. Eggs also contain saturated fat which can also induce joint pain.

    What cheese is OK on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Cheese & Yogurt

    Dairy products common to the traditional Mediterranean Diet include: brie, chevre, corvo, feta, haloumi, manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, ricotta, yogurt (including Greek yogurt).

    What cereal can I eat on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Hot Millet Breakfast Cereal

    The Mediterranean diet encourages consuming plenty of whole grains—and there's no shortage of good-for-you grains to experiment with. Millet, for example, provides a unique alternative to the usual oats or whole wheat toast you might normally turn to at breakfast.

    What is a typical Mediterranean lunch? ›

    The Mediterranean diet focuses on fresh vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, beans, and eggs. A chicken wrap with apples and nuts is a filling Mediterranean-inspired lunch. Almond-stuffed dates are a sweet and crunchy way to get protein and fiber.

    Is peanut butter OK on Mediterranean diet? ›

    And as plant-based protein sources that are high in good and unsaturated fats, peanuts and peanut butter are a natural fit within Mediterranean and Flexitarian ways of eating.

    Is rice OK on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Is rice on the Mediterranean diet? Yes, rice is a staple of the Mediterranean diet. It's often eaten as a pilaf with herbs and spices rather than plain. For example, you can try Mediterranean Yellow Rice or Chickpea Rice Pilaf.

    Are bananas on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Oats are a whole grain, which is encouraged on the Mediterranean diet. Low or moderate amounts of cheese, such as brie, feta, ricotta, and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), are also allowed. All types of fresh fruits, including bananas, are a go on the diet.

    Can I eat oatmeal on Mediterranean diet? ›

    Oatmeal is a safe option that can be dressed up for breakfast to make it better. Try adding a variety of nuts and fruit to improve the taste of plain oatmeal. Consider making it with honey, diced apples and chopped walnuts. Strawberries, blueberries and blackberries are also good options.

    Why am I gaining weight on Mediterranean diet? ›

    In some cases, the Mediterranean diet may lead to: Weight gain from eating more than the recommended amount of fat (such as in olive oil and nuts) Low levels of iron from not eating enough meat. Calcium loss from eating fewer dairy products.

    What does a week of Mediterranean diet look like? ›

    Eat SOME seafood and omega-3-rich foods (2 to 3 times per week) – Fish (preferably fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, but you can use white fish varieties as well), nuts, and seeds. If it works for you, try to eat these 2 to 3 times a week. Eat SOME poultry, eggs, and dairy (1 to 2 times per week).

    Do potatoes cause inflammation? ›

    Nightshade Vegetables

    Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are all members of the nightshade family. These vegetables contain the chemical solanine, which some people claim aggravates arthritis pain and inflammation.

    Is oatmeal inflammatory? ›

    Background: Oat and its compounds have been found to have anti-inflammatory effects.

    Are sweet potatoes anti-inflammatory? ›

    Antioxidants Aplenty

    Purple-fleshed sweet potatoes are thought to contain super-high levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents. As these substances pass through your system, they balance out free radicals -- chemicals that harm your cells.

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