The Mediterranean Diet is one we hear about quite often from medical professionals. But what exactly does it entail? We’re letting you in on all the details, and everything you need to know about this popular style of eating.
In a time when we are calling out and rejecting food trends and diets for their harsh restrictions, unrealistic rules and limited sustainability, there’s one that’s withstood the test of time – the Mediterranean diet. It is an eating pattern recommended by many medical and nutrition professionals, and is well known for its positive effects on weight and heart health. Below, we’ll break it down for you – where it came from, what it’s all about, and what we think of it.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is an eating style based on the traditional culinary habits of the countries and cultures bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Now, there are about 22 countries that comprise the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, so there isn’t one standard Mediterranean diet. Different cultures certainly practice different methods and flavor combinations. But the general gist is universal.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the consumption of plants. It is a plant-based eating approach. The majority of the diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. People consume fish, poultry, eggs and other dairy products in low to moderate amounts. And consumption of red meat, refined sugar and processed foods is quite limited.
Let’s break it down a little bit further.
Fruits and vegetables
The Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of 6 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Fruits and veggies should make up the majority of each meal. In addition, it is encouraged to consume a variety of different kinds. Among the most popular are tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and carrots.
Beans and Legumes
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the use of beans and legumes for adding protein and fiber to dishes. Since animal products are not the focal point of meals, plant-based proteins are staples, and are consumed often more than animal-based proteins. Options like chickpeas, black beans and lentils are present in many dishes.
Whole grains are also a staple. Minimally processed grains are preferred, because they withhold all valuable vitamins, minerals and fiber that would otherwise be lost during processing. Things like barley, buckwheat, farro, oats, brown rice, whole grain breads and pastas are encouraged to be consumed daily.
The Mediterranean diet is certainly not a low-fat diet. However, it is picky about which fats to include. This diet is rich in healthy, unsaturated fats. Fats like olives and olive oil are central. The principle source of dietary fat is beloved olive oil. Used for cooking, baking, and dressing vegetables, olive oil is consumed in abundance on the Mediterranean diet. Saturated fats such as butter or margarine are not typically consumed.
Dairy is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, in moderation. The diet suggests one to three servings each day. Preferred sources include unprocessed cheeses like feta, brie, parmesan and ricotta, and fermented Greek yogurt (duh). On this diet, you rarely consume processed dairy like American cheese, yogurt with added sugar, and ice cream.
Fish is the main source of protein in the Mediterranean diet, instead of poultry, pork or red meat. Fishes high in omega-3 fatty acids are the most favored – such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and herring. It makes sense that fish is such a staple. The Mediterranean diet originated in the region of…you guessed it – the Mediterranean Sea, where fish options are abundant and extremely varied. This rocks, because studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids help improve cholesterol and reduce inflammation. Fishes such as these are also chock full of protein, contributing to the satiation factor of Mediterranean dishes.
While meat and poultry are certainly a part of the Mediterranean diet, it encourages less frequent consumption, and smaller portions of them. Poultry is often consumed two to three times per week, and red meat is eaten very rarely – about one to two times per month.
Weight Loss & the Mediterranean Diet
Although the Mediterranean diet isn’t designed for weight loss, research shows that it encourages such effects. Because fruits and vegetables make up such a large part of the diet, it allows you to eat a very high volume of food for fewer calories. Think about your plate – if you fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables, that’s a whole lot of food, but not a whole lot of calories.
Conversely, it significantly limits the amount of processed foods and added sugars – which are typically much more calorically dense. A 2020 study showed that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with increased likelihood of weight loss maintenance and obesity management. It makes sense that one would lose weight on this diet – you’re eating tons of vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. It’s basically a dietitian’s dream!
Disease Prevention & the Mediterranean Diet
One of the key selling points of the Mediterranean diet is its potential positive effects on heart health. It makes total sense – you’re eating more plant foods and way less animal foods. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adhering to such a dietary pattern can reduce risk of heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. A recent study compared the short-term effects of the Mediterranean diet to those of a low-fat diet on intermediate markers of cardiovascular risk. Compared to the low-fat diet, the Mediterranean diet, supplemented with olive oil or nuts, had beneficial effects on cardiovascular risk. We know…we’re nerding out about this. Long story short – more plants, more fiber, less animal products and saturated fats equals better heart health.
The Bottom Line
Here’s our verdict – we are team Mediterranean diet! We dig it…for multiple reasons. For one, it isn’t super restrictive. It doesn’t omit entire food groups or encourage any unreasonable limitations. It simply encourages moderation of certain types of food. Aka – it’s easy to follow and also maintain your sanity while doing so. Number two – it encourages us all to eat more vegetables. Did you know that nearly 90% of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables? This diet encourages 6 to 10 servings per day. Like we said…it’s a dietitian’s dream. Thirdly, this diet includes our favorite f word…FIBER. The extra fruits and veggies and the focus on whole-grain sources of carbohydrates introduce a ton of fiber into the diet. Fiber is a nutritional powerhouse – it helps control blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol, and maintain digestive health and regularity. Fiber for the win!
We love the Mediterranean diet because it’s not a typical diet. It’s not a fad or a gimmick. In fact, nobody built or designed it as a weight loss plan. Actually, nobody built or designed it at all – it’s simply the traditional eating pattern of the Mediterranean region of the world – a region in which people typically live longer and have lower rates of disease.
Even if you’re not into all aspects of the Med diet, incorporating just a few into your life can be beneficial – such as adding an extra serving of veggies to lunch and dinner, or trading in butter for olive oil, or switching your refined grains over to whole grains. Any eating style that encourages more veggies, fiber and lean proteins – we’re down!