What Is the Mediterranean Diet? We Asked a Nutritionist for the Facts
If you’re anything like us, calorie-counting, food restrictions and ignoring the existence of carbs will not help you stick to a meal plan more than a couple weeks. That’s where the buzzy Mediterranean diet comes in. But what is the Mediterranean diet, you ask? Consider it a sort of anti-diet: You can nosh on just about anything that’s eaten in its namesake region, from grains to meat to cheese (and most importantly, bread). It’s more like a general guideline that prioritizes fresh produce, lean protein, healthy fats and whole grains than a strict diet. But with such a loose blueprint, it can be overwhelming to get started. We asked Dr. Felicia Stoler, DCN, a registered dietician, nutritionist and exercise physiologist, to tell us everything there is to know.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
As you might have figured, the Mediterranean diet focuses on foods that are found in the Mediterranean (and in case you haven’t looked at a map since high school, that includes places like Greece, Italy, Israel and the Middle East). Nothing is off the table: We’re talking chickpeas, quinoa, feta cheese, grapes, olive oil, Greek yogurt, fish and the like.
If you’re wondering if it’d work for you, Stoler says everyone is an ideal candidate for the Mediterranean diet. “It’s awesome because it really doesn’t exclude any food groups. At its core, it’s my favorite [diet plan]: It’s plant-based, includes animal-sourced protein, seafood and dairy in small quantities, [as well as] grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, olive oil...and wine!” You can even savor nightly dessert (picture treats like baked pears, frozen yogurt, chocolate mousse and olive oil cake). That said, the Mediterranean diet is particularly great for people with heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and dementia, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Like any diet, you’ll be happier with the results if you pair your meal plan with daily physical activity. “Stay active—move, dance, garden [and] clean,” advises Stoler. She also notes that socializing and conviviality can also contribute to you feeling your best: “As we’ve seen during [the pandemic], social interactions and friendships are incredibly important for human health.”
What Does a Mediterranean Diet Consist Of?
You can eat an endless number of foods on this meal plan, and you have the Mediterranean’s diverse culinary landscape to thank for it. Think vegetables, grains, breads, rice, bulgur, freekeh, couscous, pasta, cheese, lentils, beans, fruit (fresh or dried), fish (fresh or canned), yogurt, lots of spices and herbs, olives and nuts.
While you can eat just about anything, the diet will work best if you prioritize fresh produce, whole grains and lean proteins. (And if you love seafood or don’t really like poultry, the pesco Mediterranean diet might be perfect for you.)
What Are the Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet?
Stoler says there are “absolutely no risks” to trying the Mediterranean diet—only perks. “In fact, it’s always listed in the top ten diets every year by U.S. News & World Report when they do their diet review each January,” she explains. “It’s great for weight loss, heart health and longevity.” (That’s no surprise, since interest in the Mediterranean diet began in the 1950s, once research found that heart disease wasn’t nearly as common in the Mediterranean as it was in the U.S.)
The Mediterranean diet can do so much more than help you fit into your favorite jeans, though. Research shows that it can potentially boost your mood, improve frequent headaches and migraines, and boost your heart and brain health. Magnesium-rich foods (like beans, nuts, seeds and leafy greens), riboflavin-rich foods (like broccoli, eggs and almonds) and omega-3 fatty acids (aka essential fats found in fish, walnuts, hemp, chia and more that can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke)—all common on the diet—can work wonders for your body. Overall, the Mediterranean diet is thought to reduce cardiovascular risks and overall mortality.
Making fish a regular part of your diet alone can seriously improve your health, and it’s likely you’ll be eating a good amount of it on the Mediterranean diet. The American Heart Association says two three-ounce servings of fatty fish a week can reduce your risk of heart disease by 36 percent, while the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation says eating baked or broiled fish at least once a week can significantly lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Mayo Clinic also reports that fish can lower triglycerides and reduce blood clotting and stroke risk, plus aid with irregular heartbeats. Olive oil, the primary source of fat and go-to cooking oil on the Mediterranean diet (sorry, butter), also offers a bounty of benefits, thanks to its monounsaturated fat content, which is known to lower total and low-density lipoprotein (also known as “bad”) cholesterol.
What Foods Are Not Allowed on the Mediterranean Diet?
Stoler says there are no foods to outright avoid, which is music to our ears after attempting (and ditching) diets like Whole30 and keto. “I think the common mistake people [make] is loading up on animal-sourced protein, including fish and seafood,” says Stoler. There are tons of plant-based proteins you could enjoy in addition to moderate amounts of seafood, poultry and red meat, like beans, nuts and eggs. (Think of the Mediterranean diet as a way to naturally incorporate more plant-based foods into your lifestyle.)
The types of fats you eat are also key. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Mediterranean diet is proof that people at risk for heart disease don’t need to eat a low-fat diet to improve their health; instead, they simply need to choose monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats (which can all improve blood cholesterol, ease inflammation and stabilize the heart’s rhythm) instead of saturated and trans fats, which are found in foods like red meat, cheese, dairy, grain-based desserts, hydrogenated oil and fried foods. Solid options for consuming healthy fats include olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, flax seeds, soybeans and fish.
As long as you’re mindful of the refined sugars, unhealthy fats and processed foods you eat (read: if you consume them sparingly), you should be good to go. Stoler also advises choosing complex carbohydrates, like barley or brown rice, over things like white bread, pasta and baked goods (although you can still enjoy them in moderation).
Can I Cheat on the Mediterranean Diet?
Yes—but don’t think of it that way. “Cheats can always be worked into any diet plan,” explains Stoler. “The question is really how often, how much…portion sizes, how many times in a day, week or month; I do wholeheartedly believe that too many food rules and [food] deprivation lead to binging.”
In other words, there’s no real need to nix your favorite store-bought cookies from your grocery list or pass on a slice of cheesecake at dinner. As long as most of your plates are piled high with whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and fresh produce, there’s always room for your favorite indulgences. You’ll also be less likely to feel deprived on any diet if you diversify what you eat (because eating the same salmon salad every night will get old fast).
The bottom line? “If you have a healthy relationship with food and physical activity, then it’s not a cheat,” Stoler says. We’ll eat to that.
Ready to begin? Here are seven Mediterranean diet recipes to try at home:
- 15-Minute Mediterranean Couscous with Tuna and Pepperoncini
- Baked Chicken and Ricotta Meatballs
- Kale Salad with Crispy Chickpeas
- Lemon Salmon with Garlic and Thyme
- Instant Pot Harissa Bean Stew
- Greek Chicken and Rice Skillet
- Summer Millet Salad