Mediterranean diet: Foods to eat and avoid, benefits and tips to start with this eating pattern
The Mediterranean diet is a healthy and sustainable dietary pattern that is so easy to follow. This is a way of eating based on consuming vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and especially important olive oil. This is not just a diet, it is a way of living.
Important elements of the Mediterranean diet are physical activity, sharing meals with friends and family, and enjoying a glass of red wine with a meal.
In this article, you can find out what is the Mediterranean diet, what foods you should eat, and what to avoid if you decide to follow this diet. Also, you can see what are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and how to start with this healthy and well-researched eating pattern.
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What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a healthy way of eating based on the traditional cuisines of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. The Mediterranean diet is not really a “diet” in the way we usually think of the term. It’s more a way of eating and living.
A traditional diet from the Mediterranean region includes a generous portion of fresh produce, legumes, whole grains, as well as some healthful fats and fish. The main components of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains
- Moderate portions of dairy products
- Limited intake of red meat
- Weekly intake of fish, poultry, eggs, and beans
These are the main components but this way of eating and living contains other important elements. These include sharing meals with family and friends, being physically active, and enjoying a glass of red wine.
Started thousands of years ago in Italy and spread around the Mediterranean, this diet is now practiced all over the world. The diet becomes popular in the1990s when a Harvard University doctor showcased it as a diet useful for improving heart health, losing weight, and clearing up other health issues.
Foods to eat on the Mediterranean diet
This diet is so popular because it doesn’t limit food types that other diets require. The Mediterranean diet focuses on replacing certain foods with healthier but similar options. Another great thing about this eating style is that the food is so flavorful and there are plenty of options, making it easy to maintain and enjoy!
There is no strict rule of which foods belong to the Mediterranean diet. This is mainly because there is such variation between different countries. This diet is high in healthy plant foods and relatively low in animal foods.
You should base your diet on these unprocessed foods:
Tomatoes, kale, spinach, broccoli, onions, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, etc. Seasonal and local vegetables. You don’t need to buy imported “Mediterranean” vegetables. Consume what is seasonal and local in your area. When you can’t access fresh produce you may cook some frozen vegetables such as peas, green beans, etc.
Oranges, pears, strawberries, apples, grapes, bananas, figs, dates, melons, etc. Seasonal and local fruit is consumed either after a meal or as a snack.
Beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, etc. Beans play a vital role in the Mediterranean diet. They are consumed twice a week in the form of stew cooked with olive oil and tomato.
- Whole grains
Whole oats, brown rice, barley, corn, buckwheat, whole grain bread and pasta, whole wheat. The Mediterranean diet is a moderate carbohydrate diet. Only 40% of calories come from carbs. The most common carb is bread. Bread accompanies all the vegetable dishes. Once a week you would eat a dish with pasta, and rice is often mixed with vegetables. You can eat 3 slices of bread or rusks a day, pasta once a week, other grains once or twice a week.
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and seafood
Tuna, salmon, sardines, trout, shrimp, oysters, crab, etc. Eat 2 servings a week.
Chicken, duck, turkey, etc. Red meat is generally consumed once a week and chicken once a week. Meat is not the main course unless is a holiday or celebration.
Yogurt, cheese, Greek yogurt, etc. The main sources of dairy are yogurt and regular fat cheese. Sheep and goat cheese is often consumed.
- Healthy fats
Extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados. Olive oil is your main source of fat. You use it for cooking, baking, and sautéing. Olive oil is very high in compounds called phenols, which are potent antioxidants capable of lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage.
How much olive oil per day on the Mediterranean diet? The main characteristic of the Mediterranean diet is the consumption of olive oil. If you start with the Mediterranean diet it is recommended to consume from two to four tablespoons of olive oil per day.
Estimates show that people in the Mediterranean probably consume between 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil daily. Always look for labels that indicate your olive oil is “extra-virgin” and cold-pressed. Olive oil is unique among oils. You can consume it in its crude form without any processing.
See the complete Mediterranean diet food list here.
What to drink
Your main beverage on the Mediterranean diet should be water.
You can also consume moderate amounts of red wine, around 1 glass per day only with a meal. Consuming wine is completely optional and should be avoided by anyone with alcoholism or problems controlling their consumption.
You can also drink herbal beverages, they are a great source of antioxidants and also a source of hydration. Coffee is also consumed once or twice a day.
Sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juices should be avoided.
Foods that are not allowed on the Mediterranean diet
If you decide to start with this way of eating there are some foods and ingredients that you should avoid:
- Refined grains: Pasta made with refined wheat, white bread, etc.
- Refined oils: canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, any other vegetable, and seed oil.
- Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages.
- Refined grains: pasta made with refined wheat, white bread.
- Flavored yogurts: Yogurt should only contain milk and yogurt cultures, with no added sugar, artificial flavors, or other additives.
- Ready-made salad dressings: Many of them are made with unhealthy vegetable oils.
- Processed meat: hot dogs, processed sausages, etc.
- Processed snack foods: Chips, breakfast bars, and any snack that is highly processed and full of added sugars or vegetable oils.
Benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Reduces your risk of heart disease
The number one thing that the Mediterranean diet is known for, is that is good for your heart health. This diet has been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and it’s also been shown to reduce blood pressure and bad cholesterol (LDL). There are tons of scientific research that backs the claim that the Mediterranean diet is good for your heart.
The biggest scientific evidence to say that the Mediterranean diet is healthful for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease is published in 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine. For about 5 years, scientists followed 7,000 men and women (57% women) in Spain who had a high risk of cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. Results showed that those who ate a calorie-unrestricted Mediterranean diet with extra virgin olive oil or nuts had a 30% lower risk of heart events.
The researchers reanalyzed the data a few years later to address a widely criticized flaw in the randomized protocol and reported similar results in 2018.
Another study from 2016 of more than 20,000 adults found that people who follow the Mediterranean diet are much less likely to develop heart disease. The researchers of this study also estimated that up to 4% of all heart disease cases could be prevented with adherence to a Mediterranean way of eating.
It may help you prevent or manage type 2 diabetes
According to the American Heart Association, the Mediterranean diet is higher in fat than the standard American diet but low in saturated fat. The ratio is roughly 40% complex carbohydrates, 30-40% healthy fats, and 20-30% quality protein. This balance is somewhere ideal in terms of keeping weight gain and hunger under control.
Despite that this diet emphasis on carb-heavy foods, such as grains and pasta it can help prevent diabetes for many reasons:
- The diet includes whole grains and carbs mainly from vegetables, which don’t affect your blood sugar in the same way as refined carbs.
- The only sugar present usually comes from fruit, wine, and the occasional locally made dessert.
- The diet includes lots of healthy fats and protein.
- Soda and sweetened drinks aren’t allowed.
Most people in the Mediterranean eat a balanced breakfast within 1 or 2 hours after waking up. This helps to balance blood sugar when it is at its lowest. They eat typically 3 meals a day, and many people choose to have their biggest meal mid-day as opposed to at night. This allows them to use that food energy while they are still active. This is so different from the usual American diet, where people skip breakfast, snack throughout the day, and eating a lot at night when they are sedentary.
Some studies also confirm these claims. A meta-analysis of 20 clinical trials from 2013 published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the Mediterranean diet, low-carbohydrate, low-GI, and high-protein diets are effective in improving various markers of cardiovascular risk in people with diabetes and should be considered in the overall strategy of diabetes management.
May prevent cognitive decline
The Mediterranean eating pattern may help to reduce a decline in your memory and thinking skills with age. A review published in 2016 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition examined the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive function. The conclusion from 12 analyzed studies was: “there is encouraging evidence that a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improving cognition, slowing cognitive decline, or reducing the conversion to Alzheimer’s disease.”
More research is needed to back up these claims, You shouldn’t draw any conclusion from this early research on the link between the Mediterranean diet and lower Alzheimer’s risk. But it seems that more experts agree that the Mediterranean diet can improve brain health.
Also, the experts urge caution in drawing conclusions about the current body of research into how diets affect the development of Alzheimer’s disease. They say that the exact mechanisms at play are still unclear.
Can you lose weight on the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean eating pattern is perfect if you want to lose weight without being hungry and maintain that weight. A Mediterranean diet is effective and most importantly sustainable. It is not restrictive and you can eat this way for the rest of your life.
Now there is a question if it is not restrictive how this diet can help with weight loss? This diet encourages eating a variety of nutrient rich-foods and limits processed foods and sugars, which are often high in calories. A combination of the Mediterranean diet and a healthy lifestyle could promote weight loss.
A systematic review of the Mediterranean diet for long-term weight loss from 2015 found that this diet was as effective as other popular diets for weight loss, like the low-carb diet. The results showed up to 22 pounds (10kg) of weight loss over 1 year. Furthermore, a large study in over 32,000 people showed that long-term adherence to the Mediterranean diet was linked with a decreased risk of gaining weight and belly fat over five years.
Mediterranean diet can be a useful tool to reduce body weight. Years of research have shown that the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest around, and especially effective for weight loss when the diet is associated with physical activity and if you stick to it for more than 6 months. Mediterranean diet does not cause weight gain, which removes the objection to its relatively high-fat content.
How to start the Mediterranean diet
The great thing about the Mediterranean diet is that this eating pattern doesn’t require any special diet plans, branded foods, or counting calories. To start with the Mediterranean way of eating you just need to go to the grocery store to stock up on the recommended foods and make little changes to your meals.
Here are some suggestions and small changes that you need to make to start with this diet:
Eat more fruits and vegetables: Start enjoying a salad as a starter or side dish, and incorporate more vegetables in your meals. For snacks instead of eating chips, pretzels, or crackers, try eating, fruits, celery, carrots, or cucumbers.
Choose whole grains: Start using whole grains, instead of refined pasta, bread, or rice. Instead of white rice with stir-fried meat try to eat quinoa with stir-fried vegetables.
Eat fish instead of red meat at least twice a week: Red meat is limited to one serving a week. To start, you can eat red meat more than once a week, but try to use it as a side dish rather than the main course. You can eat red meat two times a week in this way. When it comes to fish if you can find fresh it is great. Canned, marinated, and cured fish is good too, as well as frozen.
Use olive oil as your main source of fat: Olive oil should be your main source of fat, and you will need to replace other fats with olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the primary source of added fat in the Mediterranean diet.
Here are some ways to use olive oil:
- Drizzle it over salad, cooked vegetables, or pasta.
- Add at the end of cooking for a burst of flavor
- Make a tasty heart-healthy dip by mixing cooked beans, garlic, and olive oil in a food processor; season to taste with your favorite herbs.
- Use it in marinades and sauces for fish, poultry, and vegetables. The oil penetrates nicely into the first few layers of the food being marinated.
Always eat breakfast: Fruit, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods are a great way to start your day, keeping you full for hours.
Make mealtimes a social experience: Gather the family together, regular family meals provide comfort to kids and are a great way to monitor their eating habits as well. If you are alone invite a friend or a co-worker to join you and eat together.
If you want to try the Mediterranean diet and need help with some recipes here is a Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for beginners with 1000 quick and easy recipes that will help you to change your eating lifestyle!
Final thoughts about the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is not just an eating pattern it is a way of living. This is an excellent diet plan that is easy to follow and flexible. You don’t need to count calories or cut meals. You just need to focus on eating more plant-based foods, include olive oil in your diet, and eat more fish instead of red meat.
Combined with daily physical activity, adequate sleep, and regular social connections the Mediterranean way of eating will help you to feel more energized and healthier!