Mediterranean Diet For Beginners: Everything You Need To Know

April 13, 2023


Amanda Holtzer, MS, RDN

Fad diets come and go, but one diet has withstood the test of time – the Mediterranean diet. That’s probably because the Mediterranean diet is more of an eating pattern than a traditional diet. There’s also a good amount of research on its health benefits.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the Mediterranean diet – where it came from, what it’s all about, and the reason why the Mediterranean diet is our favorite “diet.”


What Is The Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional culinary habits of the countries and cultures bordering the Mediterranean Sea (1). Now, there are about 22 Mediterranean countries, including those in Southern Europe, Western Asia, North Africa, islands within the Mediterranean Sea, and other countries in the middle east and surrounding areas.

So, there isn’t one standard Mediterranean diet! Different cultures practice different methods and flavor combinations. But the general gist is universal.

The Mediterranean diet is a plant-based eating approach. Most of the diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. People consume low to moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs, and other dairy products. Consumption of red meat, refined sugar, and processed foods is limited.


How To Get Started With The Mediterranean Diet

Quick side note from a dietitian – One of the most important things to consider when trying to improve your nutrition and health is the sustainability of those changes. We recommend ditching the quick fixes and focusing on gradual, long-term, sustainable changes. So, if you’re interested in shifting to a more Mediterranean eating style, remember – take one small change at a time, feel the difference, then keep going.


Eat Whole Foods

The foundation of the Mediterranean Diet is eating mostly whole foods and limiting processed foods as much as possible (2). A whole food is a food product that has been minimally processed (3). Remember that all foods are processed in some way – even fruits and vegetables. This diet aims to limit highly processed foods – such as packaged salty snacks and refined sugary treats.

So, the best place to start if you want to adopt a Mediterranean eating pattern is to decrease your intake of processed foods. Most Mediterranean dishes include whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.


Make Vegetables The Main Priority

How much fruit and vegetables should you eat on the Mediterranean diet? The target goal is 6 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. For reference, one serving is about 1 cup or 1 fist size of fresh fruit or vegetables.

To hit the goal, you can also make about half of your plate vegetables and/or fruit for all meals and snacks. Variety is also important when it comes to fruit and vegetable intake. We recommend eating local and seasonal produce with many colors to optimize nutrient intake.

Swap Red Meat For Fish

Fish is the main source of protein in the Mediterranean diet, instead of poultry, pork, or red meat. It makes sense that fish is such a staple. The Mediterranean diet originated in the region of the Mediterranean Sea, where fish options are abundant and extremely varied!

Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are ideal – such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and herring. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids help improve cholesterol and reduce inflammation (4).

To adopt a Mediterranean eating pattern, you don’t have to eliminate meat and poultry completely. Instead, focus on eating these foods less frequently and having smaller portions. General guidelines are – poultry 2 – 3 times per week and red meat about 1 – 2 times monthly.


Eat Whole Grains

Whole grains are also a staple Mediterranean diet food. Minimally processed grains are ideal because they are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are otherwise lost during processing. Foods like barley, buckwheat, farro, oats, brown rice, whole grain bread, and pasta are all great options!

Rethink Dairy

Dairy is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, in moderation. The diet suggests 1 – 3 servings daily. Preferred sources include minimally processed cheeses like feta cheese, brie, parmesan, ricotta, and fermented Greek yogurt. You rarely consume processed dairy like American cheese, yogurt with added sugar, and ice cream on this diet.


Mediterranean Diet Pantry List

The Mediterranean diet leans on various staples that can live in your pantry, like beans and legumes. Since animal products are not the focal point of meals, plant-based proteins like chickpeas, black beans, and lentils are present in many Mediterranean recipes.

A few more Mediterranean diet pantry stables are olives, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. We recommend stoking your pantry with almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds, and pumpkin seeds – all of which are perfect for snacking or adding to any salad or bowl. (Pro tip – store your nuts in the freezer, they’ll last twice as long.)

The Mediterranean Diet for Beginners

Anyone can start incorporating some Mediterranean diet principles into their daily eating routine. Even if you’re not into all aspects of the diet, incorporating just a few can be beneficial.

We encourage you to start small. Choose one principle of the Mediterranean diet that you would like to incorporate, and try that for a couple of weeks. It can be as simple as adding 1 extra serving of vegetables daily, swapping olive oil for butter, switching your refined grains to whole grains, or choosing nuts as a snack.


The Bottom Line on The Mediterranean Diet for Beginners

The Mediterranean Diet is a traditional eating pattern from the Mediterranean region of the world – a region in which people typically live longer and have lower disease rates. It isn’t restrictive and doesn’t omit entire food groups or encourage unreasonable limitations. It simply encourages moderation of certain types of food – processed foods, red meat, and refined carbohydrates. At the same time, it encourages increased consumption of health-promoting whole foods like olive oil, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish.

Have more questions about the Mediterranean diet? Work with a Culina Health Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to get personalized virtual nutrition care that is covered by insurance. Schedule a free intro call to get started!

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or application is intended for reference and educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately qualified and licensed medical services provider.

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