This is a modernized way of eating is a nutritionist-approved way to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your chances of developing chronic illness. And! It’s backed by science to help promote better eating habits that keep your heart strong, lengthen your lifespan, and more, which gives you another reason to give it a shot! But what is the Mediterranean diet exactly, and how can it help you lose weight and live longer?
Defined as more of a lifestyle change than a “diet,” this has become an increasingly popular way to see powerful results in a more sustainable way than traditional diets. By focusing more on what you should eat rather than what you can’t eat, the Mediterranean Diet creates long-lasting habits that keep you healthy and strong, so you can live a fuller, happier life.
The Mediterranean Diet is a highly adaptable way to eat that focuses on adding healthier additions and substitutions to your diet rather than focusing on restrictions. This diet has been shown to have positive effect on your heart health, blood sugar levels, and reducing the chances of developing conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Table of Contents
The Origins of the Mediterranean Diet
What Are the Effects of Eating a Mediterranean Diet?
Mediterranean Diet Sample Meal Plan
The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Food Swapping Tips
Challenges to Consider
Mediterranean Diet Recipes
The Bottom Line
The Origins of the Mediterranean Diet
After World War II, countries around the Mediterranean Sea like Greece and Italy were forced to rely on simpler diets made up of foods commonly found in their local regions. Things like fish, olive oil, fresh vegetables, whole grains, and nuts were widely available and quickly became diet staples. Meanwhile, in Western cultures like the United States, a booming economy led to “richer” diets saturated with highly processed foods like fried foods and red meat.
By the early 1950s, doctors noticed that cultures that embraced Mediterranean-based diets were living longer, healthier lives, while those living in western Europe and the United States were suffering from higher rates of heart attacks and strokes. The cause for this big difference? You guessed it – their diets!
Since then, doctors have studied the effects of the Mediterranean Diet and they found that eating a robust diet full of whole grains, healthy fats, and less sugar and refined carbs can lead to fewer health problems.
What Are the Effects of Eating a Mediterranean Diet?
Some major studies investigating the effects of eating a primarily Mediterranean Diet have found that it has many different positive health benefits. Not only can it help you lose weight, but it can establish a foundation for better eating habits in the future! Some of the most important results from these pivotal studies found that following a Mediterranean Diet resulted in:
- Decreased chance of developing heart disease
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Preventing and treating Diabetes
- Reduced possibility of developing Alzheimer’s
- Improved brain function and memory
- Reduced depression symptoms
- Decreased chances of developing eye diseases like vision loss
- Increased weight loss
As the evidence from studies like the above continues to grow, so does interest in the Mediterranean Diet among people who want to live healthier, longer lives without oppressive “fad diets”. So then, how can you reap the benefits of this wholesome diet?
Mediterranean Diet Sample Meal Plan
The traditional Mediterranean Diet is associated with high amounts of olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and other lean proteins and less processed foods. Just keeping these general guidelines in mind as you go about your day can be an excellent first step in improving your health – opting for fish instead of a burger, or brown rice instead of white can go a long way towards providing the benefits associated with this style of eating.
List of Foods on The Mediterranean Diet
Whether you’re just venturing into the world of healthier eating or looking to fully dive in, the basics of Mediterranean Diet eating follow a few simple rules: Choose more nutrient-rich, whole foods, limit dairy and red meat and avoid refined sugars and processed foods whenever possible.
Eat LOTS of these
- Vegetables: 3 servings per day or more. Fresh, whole vegetables are best, but frozen is okay too! They keep much longer and can be easier to stock up on.
- Fruits: 2 servings per day or more. Like vegetables, fresh and whole is best, but frozen works in a pinch!
- Whole Grains: The sky’s the limit, so to speak. You should try to eat whole grains whenever your meal calls for rice, bread, or pasta. There is no set amount but in general the more the better (until you’re full, of course).
- Legumes: 3 servings weekly or more. This includes things like beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, etc. Legumes are an excellent source of protein, antioxidants, and low glycemic-index carbohydrates, which lower your blood sugar levels. Include them as often as possible!
- Nuts/Seeds: 3 servings weekly or more. Just like the legumes above, you do not need to limit your intake to just three handfuls per week. These make great snacks, toppings, and meal additions.
Eat SOME of these
- Fish/Seafood: 3 servings per week or more. Fatty fish like herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna, or trout are best.
- Poultry: As needed. You are welcome to include lean proteins like chicken and turkey in your diet, but it’s important to not have too much. Try to leave room in your diet for all of the more important foods listed above.
Eat LESS OR NONE of these
- Red Meat: Less than 3 servings per month. Cutting red meat out of your diet completely is best, but having it occasionally is okay. If given the choice, opt for leaner cuts and smaller portions.
- Sweets / Desserts: Limit these! Don’t worry, you can still treat yourself! But they should be for special occasions, ideally no more than once per week. Cutting high-calorie desserts and refined sugars like baked goods are important steps for your health. Try to replace these healthier, naturally sweet, whole foods like fruit wherever you can.
- Processed/Fried/Fast Food: Zero is best! These are likely the most important thing to cut back on. The occasional “cheat meal” is okay, especially if it helps you to stick to your main health goals.
Remember, you don’t need to adopt all these ingredients at once. Try to add one or two Mediterranean ingredients to your shopping list or replace one red-meat meal with fish each week. Small changes will add up over time. And, since this is meant to be a lifelong change in how you eat, it’s perfectly fine to take it slow.
Focus on whole foods: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and fatty fish. AVOID red meat, processed foods, and fried foods.
The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Your food can have as much impact as ordinary medicine to treat certain medical conditions or prevent them from developing! The Mediterranean Diet can reduce inflammation, keep blood sugar levels stable, and lower your risk for obesity just by making a few changes to your daily eating habits.
Reduces Harmful Inflammation
When you think of inflammation, you might associate it with red, painful, swollen injuries. And while sometimes inflammation can protect us from germs and can help injuries heal, too much inflammation can be a bad thing.
Chronic inflammation is believed to be responsible for many things that can go wrong with our bodies. Everything from heart disease and Alzheimer’s to depression and mental illness appear to be linked to chronically elevated levels of inflammation. Basically, every food in the Mediterranean Diet helps fight inflammation!
Foods high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols, are plant-based nutrients that work wonders in the body to help reduce inflammation. Some excellent food choices that help fight inflammation that you can easily add to your daily meals are:
- Fruits like blackberries, cherries, strawberries, tomatoes, lemon, and oranges
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens
- Herbs such as oregano, parsley, mint, chives, and basil
- Vegetables like red cabbage, cauliflower, red onion, broccoli, and avocados
- Nuts like almonds, walnuts, and chickpeas
- Fatty fishes including salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines
- Other foods and spices like paprika, cumin, garlic, chia seeds, and olive oil
Prevents Your Blood Sugar from Spiking
Complex carbs come from whole wheat and other whole plant foods that are rich in fiber (you know, that stuff that makes you go to the bathroom?) Some highly nutritional foods high in healthy carbohydrates are:
- Brown and wild rice
- Barley and buckwheat
- Oats and spelt
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Elevated blood sugar can also not only cause inflammation, but it can damage your blood vessels and weaken your heart! Eventually, elevated blood sugar can lead to diabetes, which is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States.
The Mediterranean Diet is no stranger to carbohydrates, which are what the body gets its blood sugar from. But instead of highly refined, simple carbohydrates (white bread and rice, baked goods, most breakfast cereals, and syrups) or added sugars (like Stevia, high-fructose corn syrup, or molasses) which cause blood sugars to spike, the Mediterranean Diet contains complex, healthy carbohydrates. These do not lead to high blood sugar or diabetes. In fact, they are actually good for your metabolism!
The way you prepare food also matters – while potatoes can be healthy, deep frying them in oil or covering them with cheese can turn a good choice into a not-so-great choice (at least, health-wise). Preparing your carbs with extra virgin olive oils, baked in the oven, or seared in a pan keeps them healthy, and most importantly, just as delicious.
Fights and Treats Obesity
The Mediterranean Diet has been proven to be one of the most effective eating strategies for weight loss. This is probably due to the low-calorie foods like vegetables and lean proteins, as well its favor for complex, instead of simple carbs. Weight loss is incredibly complicated, but this diet is an excellent way to get started.
Elect for low-fat or lite options and limited processed foods can help with weight loss and other health goals. Some researchers even found that long-term Mediterranean dieting was just as effective as low-carb diets, and a decreased risk of developing belly fat. Imagine losing weight without the constant carb cravings? That’s the dream!
Adaptable Eating for Gluten-Sensitive & Vegetarian Diets
If you don’t consume meat, the Mediterranean Diet provides the option to replace your protein source with legumes, whole-grain foods, and even tofu. A wide variety of gluten-free foods are optionally available as well, so those with Celiac Disease and gluten allergies can enjoy the benefits of this diet as well. Quinoa and amaranth are great gluten-free options that go well with the Mediterranean Diet!
Great for the Environment
Plant-heavy eating habits from diets like the Mediterranean Diet can help make sustainable environmental choices! Large-scale meat production usually produces more harmful greenhouse gases than growing fruits and vegetables does and takes up less land. By eating a Mediterranean Diet, you can help save water, conserve land, and prevent pollutants from winding up in the environment!
Lets You Eat the Foods You Already Love
The Mediterranean Diet is less about removing foods completely from your diet and is more about replacing those perhaps less beneficial foods with smarter, more nutritionally balanced choices. This means you don’t have to give up your weekly Pizza Day treat at work or skip on dessert when you’ve hit your calorie budget for the day.
Satisfy your insane sweet tooth with some coconut flour cake and a scoop of low-fat sorbet or pack in your pre-workout carbs with whole-grain pita chips and loaded cauliflower pasta. Give your favorite dishes a makeover while amping up on superfoods that give your body what it needs to perform at its best.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet include reducing inflammation, regulating blood sugar, fighting and treating obesity.
In addition, it is also better for the environment, highly adaptable to vegan and gluten-free lifestyles, and allows you to eat many of the foods you already enjoy.
Easy Food Swaps
- Use extra virgin olive oil or vinegar-based dressings to replace vegetable oil or other salad dressings
- Canned tuna is a fast swap-out for a grilled hot dog and is a cost-effective source of protein too!
- Pack mixed nuts instead of chips or granola bars for a mid-afternoon salty pick me up
- Whole-grain breads instead of white or sourdough for sandwiches to make them Mediterranean-friendly (hint: pita bread goes great with many Mediterranean foods!)
- Chop up some cooked chicken to use instead of traditional and often sodium-rich deli meats
- Add flavor to any dish by replacing butter with garlic oil or onion powder
- Sweeten a dish with any fresh fruit! Top off your yogurt with a handful of blueberries or eat by themselves for a satisfying dessert.
- Use avocado or hummus as a spread or dip instead of ranch, butter, or mayonnaise
- Swap beef patties with ground turkey or baked salmon for a burger substitute
- Bake or grill instead of fry to crisp and brown your food (or use the ever-popular and lifesaving air-fryer)
Challenges to Consider Before Starting the Mediterranean Diet
While changing the way you eat is a great achievement, sometimes getting there has a learning curve. Along the way, you might find that you need to experiment with what works better for your unique metabolism and nutritional needs.
Watching Your Fat Intake
Healthy fats are great for heart health, more than the recommended amount can actually work against you. Overdoing nuts and avocado oil are fast ways to consume excess calories, which can cause weight gain instead of loss. This is why a healthy balance of all foods is key to a successful Mediterranean Diet.
Easy to Skip Essential Foods
Skipping out completely on some foods can also work against you. While the Mediterranean Diet encourages you to eat more fruits and vegetables, not eating enough protein-rich white meat like chicken or fish can cause fatigue and other issues due to a lack of iron and other nutrients. If you want a more vegetarian-leaning Mediterranean Diet, make sure you supplement your source of protein and iron from other plant-based foods like legumes, tofu, spinach, or baked potatoes.
Lack of dairy can also lead to calcium loss which can weaken bones and muscle function. Adding a bit of low-fat feta cheese or taking calcium supplements combats these issues.
Mediterranean Diet Recipes
Need some inspiration? Try this sample menu of Mediterranean Diet-approved meals!
- Lox and Eggs Scramble – Combine scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, capers, and asparagus and top with creamy low-fat goat or feta cheese.
- Greek Yogurt Parfait – Mix in with your favorite sliced fruit and a handful of chia seeds or nuts.
- Whole Wheat Toast with Veggies – Serve with a side of eggs or top with mashed avocado.
- Green Cherry Smoothie – Blend Kefir or plant-based milk with low-fat Greek yogurt, frozen black cherries, baby spinach, avocado, ginger, and almond butter.
- Simple Fruit Salad – Toss together your favorite berries, bananas, grapes, and melons, and sprinkle chia seeds or honey and a splash of (no sugar added!) orange juice or light dressing.
- Heirloom Tomato Toast – Top toasted whole-grain bread with diced heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, olive oil or balsamic glaze, and low-fat cream cheese.
- Mini Chicken Shawarma – Stuff whole wheat pita bread with grilled chicken spiced to taste, garlic and parsley, thinly sliced onion, diced tomato, shredded lettuce, and cucumber.
- Tuna Stuffed Bell Peppers – Mix plain Greek yogurt, Dijon, celery, diced tomato, and garlic powder with canned tuna for a healthy tuna salad you can stuff into a hallowed out crispy bell pepper.
- Salmon Cucumber Grain Bowl – Cook whole-grain farro and pair with Alaskan salmon fillet, cucumber, and garlic. Add fresh mint, parsley, dill, garlic, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard for flavor.
- Greek Turkey Burgers – Cook ground turkey patties and serve with whole wheat buns, and your favorite burger toppings with just a little bit of tzatziki sauce on top.
- Spicy Calamari Salad – Grill sliced squid, cucumber, basil, watercress, red onion, tomato, and roasted peanuts with garlic chili sauce, peanut oil, and a bit of lime juice.
- Chickpea and Eggplant Stew – Boil millet and cooked chickpeas and sliced, grilled eggplant, minced garlic, pureed tomatoes, onion, and cilantro, then combine and simmer together in one pot.
- Crispy Salmon Plate – Broil salmon with the skin on, and pair with cooked brown rice and mixed grilled vegetables.
- Roasted Squash Side Dish – Roast chunks of acorn squash and apples coated with olive oil, cinnamon, allspice, coriander, and salt and pepper. Mix in dried cherries and pepitas for extra flavor and texture.
- Cold Lemon Zoodles – Coat zucchini noodles with olive oil, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, garlic powder, thyme, and mix with thinly sliced radishes.
- Anti-Pasto Mini Plate – Pack assorted olives, marinated artichoke hearts, sliced roasted red bell peppers, and toasted pita rounds, with sides of Greek yogurt and honey, olive oil, hummus, and za’atar for a quick anti-pasta lunch.
- Eggplant Mini Pizzas – Slice eggplants into small disks, brush with olive oil, and bake. Once done, spread low-sodium marinara sauce on top along with low-sodium mozzarella cheese, and cherry tomato slices. Bake again and sprinkle fresh basil when done.
- Date and Pistachio Bites – Combine dates, pistachios, raisins, and fennel in a food processor until finely chopped. Roll into balls and enjoy!
- Simple Trail Mix – Toss your favorite nuts and dried fruit together and sprinkle with salt.
- Zucchini Chips and Dip – Thinly slice zucchini, season with salt or Harissa seasoning, then broil. Enjoy with hummus or tzatziki.
- Baked Pears – Cut pears in half, and brush with maple syrup and/or cinnamon and vanilla extract mixture. Bake until tender, and top with crushed oats and almonds, then bake again.
- Peanut Butter Banana Cookies – Mix mashed bananas, coconut sugar, unsweetened chunky peanut butter, roasted peanuts, vanilla extract, maple syrup, baking soda, and kosher salt. Roll into balls and bake on a pan at 375 for 10 minutes.
- Watermelon Sorbet – Blend cubed, frozen watermelon chunks until pureed (that’s it!).
- Peaches and Cream Popsicles – Roast sliced peaches coated with brown sugar and/or cinnamon and salt, cool, and mash. Mix with plain Greek yogurt, vanilla extract, almond extract, and crème fraîche. Pour into popsicle molds with sticks and freeze.
- Chocolate Avocado Mousse – Simmer almond or coconut milk and melted dark chocolate on medium-high heat until it reaches 175 °F. Cool and add avocados, and orange zest, and blend on high. Sprinkle puffed quinoa, salt, and olive oil on top before serving.
The Bottom Line on the Mediterranean Diet
There is a simplistic beauty to the Mediterranean Diet: eat delicious food and become healthier. Eat whole foods, healthy fats, and fresh ingredients and then you don’t have to worry about tons of rules like the latest fad diet. These foods are a symphony of healthy components woven together into a simple package: fresh, organic, unprocessed foods that are delicious and satisfying. We hope this helps you to get started!
For more tips on the Mediterranean Diet and meal ideas check out this post.