What is the Mediterranean Diet?
Our Mediterranean diet guide for beginners has everything you need to know about this heart-healthy and totally delicious way to eat and live. Find sample meal plans, recipe ideas, shopping lists, and more.
You may be familiar with the Mediterranean diet pyramid, but do you understand the science behind it? Full of diverse plant-based foods, healthy fats, whole grains, and yes—the occasional glass of red wine—the Mediterranean diet is widely embraced by top medical professionals and experts. This age-old eating habit is deeply rooted in the coastal cuisines of Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy, France, and northern Africa. Doctors and medical professionals in United States are increasingly advocating a Mediterranean diet plan as research uncovers its many health benefits. A groundbreaking 2013 study by the University of Barcelona made the connection between the Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular health strikingly clear. Over 7,000 Spanish participants—many of whom were overweight, smokers, or diabetic—adopted a Mediterranean-style diet rich in healthy fats (olive oil or nuts) for nearly five years. After a comprehensive follow-up, surprised researchers ended the study early after observing a sharp improvement in participants’ health. The findings showed an “absolute risk reduction,” or a 30% decrease of cardiovascular disease among these high-risk individuals. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, made news across the U.S. as evidence enough that everyone, from high-risk to healthy individuals, can benefit by eating Mediterranean diet foods.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
A perfect plate reflecting the Mediterranean diet is nutritionally balanced, diverse, and full of color, flavor, and texture. It’s crisp, leafy greens; deep purple grapes; ruby-red salmon; vibrant rainbow carrots; and nutty, crunchy farro. It’s Greek yogurt topped with figs, dates, and a drizzle of honey. Is your mouth watering? That’s exactly the point—the Mediterranean diet should never feel restrictive. Instead, it’s an enlightened way of eating defined by plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, healthy grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
The Mediterranean diet is not a low-fat diet. Fat is actually encouraged, but only healthy varieties such as monounsaturated fat from olive oil and polyunsaturated fat (specifically omega-3 fatty acids) from certain fish and shellfish. Unhealthy fats such as trans fats and saturated fats, which are often found in processed foods and red meat, are discouraged. While the Mediterranean diet is strongly plant-based, it is not exclusively vegetarian. Fish, shellfish, and a little poultry are welcome, but they should never trump whole grains, fruits, vegetables, or legumes in a meal.
Another key component of the Mediterranean diet is lifestyle. Enjoy the social component of eating by sharing meals with family and friends as often as possible, whether on a weeknight or special occasion. Slow down, savor each bite, and don’t be afraid to have a glass of wine (or two) in moderation. While wine packs antioxidants, you should also drink plenty of water, as staying properly hydrated keeps your body functioning. The last bit of the equation is making physical activity a part of your daily routine, whether it’s biking to work or simply taking a walk during your lunch break to enjoy the fresh air.
In the United States, the Mediterranean diet’s popularity continues to rise alongside a growing need for healthier eating patterns and lifestyles. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirms heart disease as the leading cause of death in America for men and women, due to obesity, poor diet, lack of physical activity, diabetes, high levels of bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, and more. In the 1970s, U.S. physiologist Ancel Keys first linked a Mediterranean-style diet and better cardiovascular health through his “Seven Countries Study,” but his theory would not catch on until several decades later. In the 1990s, non-profit Oldways Preservation Trust introduced the Mediterranean Diet pyramid (pictured below), offering Americans a different approach to healthy eating than the USDA food pyramid provided. Through solid research, increased support from experts, and continued education to the public, the Mediterranean diet is regarded today as a powerful weapon against rising rates of heart disease in the U.S.
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are evident from both a medical and holistic perspective. While weight loss is not the primary intent of this diet, it’s an inherent effect from eating more plant-based foods while curbing sugar and red meat. Additionally, the high-fiber content of many whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes found in the Mediterranean diet will help you feel fuller for longer, and reduce the chance of overeating. You’ll also pick up additional perks such as better digestive health and effective weight management. A Mediterranean diet can also be beneficial to those with type-2 diabetes by helping to lower blood glucose levels while promoting good HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Lastly, studies have also shown a link between the Mediterranean diet and long-term brain health. These health perks, combined with increased exercise and leisure-time, help earn the Mediterranean diet its reputation as a well rounded, logical, and realistic way to live.
The practice of doctors prescribing the Mediterranean diet as a way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease is certainly on the rise. We asked top medical experts in the fields of nutrition, epidemiology, and cardiology to share why they advocate a Mediterranean diet:
“The effectiveness of the traditional Mediterranean diet for preventing cardiovascular disease and premature death has been tested by both time and rigorous scientific methods. Health care providers should feel confident recommending this as a way of helping their patients live long and well.”
—Walter Willett, MD D.Ph., Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
“The eating style with the most impressive evidence to support its health benefits is the Mediterranean diet. However, this is not the American version of the Mediterranean diet, which tends to be heavy on pasta, pizza and meat. Instead, it's the traditional peasant Mediterranean diet, whose followers could not afford refined sugar, processed foods, butter and meats. Instead, they grew and ate their own vegetables and berries, and tended orchards of olives, nuts, and fruits. They fished the seas and rivers for their protein, which was rich in omega-3 fats. They consumed modest amounts of fermented dairy such as yogurt and cheese. Many of them during their largest meal of the day would enjoy a glass of red wine from their own vineyards. This diet and lifestyle has been proven in many large studies to be the healthiest eating pattern in the world; and it helps that it is delicious as well as nutritious.”
—James O'Keefe, MD, Director of Preventive Cardiology, Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute
What are the Key Components of the Mediterranean Diet?
Plant-based foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and healthy fats such as olive oil should be worked into every meal when possible. Below, we break down six essential components of the Mediterranean diet.
1. Healthy Grains: Whether enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, whole, healthy grains are full of fiber, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties. A 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine linked whole grains and lower mortality, especially from chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Common whole grains include brown rice and oats, while ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, farro, buckwheat, and bulgur pack the added perk of being gluten-free.
2. Vegetables: These plant-based foods are colorful, nutritious, and extremely versatile. Whether raw, grilled, steamed, sautéed, roasted, or pickled, vegetables should be on your plate during every meal. They’re easy to spread over pizza, mix into scrambled eggs, or toss into salads.
3. Proteins: Good proteins to eat include fish and shellfish, especially varieties packing omega-3 fatty acids. Some of the healthiest seafood you can eat are salmon, arctic char, mackerel, anchovies, and oysters. Don’t forget about plant proteins such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds—these foods contain unsaturated fats, fiber, and can add instant texture and flavor to salads or stand alone as satisfying snacks.
4. Fruits: Healthy fruits in the Mediterranean diet include olives, avocados, grapes, and figs, all of which pack fiber and antioxidants. Consume as many types of fruit as possible from seasonal to locally grown. In terms of when to eat fruit, focus on when you would normally crave a sugar fix such as in the afternoon or after dinner.
5. Healthy Fats: Olive oil is the primary healthy fat of the Mediterranean diet and is used for cooking, baking, sauces, vinaigrettes, and more. In addition to olive oil, the American Heart Association recommends healthy cooking oils such as canola, peanut, and safflower.
6. Red Wine: The health benefits of red wine are particular noteworthy. A 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine linked one serving of red wine daily (150ml. or 5 oz.) to an increase of good cholesterol in the body. Sipping a glass of wine can help you de-stress while also enhancing the flavor of your food.
Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan for Beginners
Unlike conventional diets, the Mediterranean diet doesn't restrict you to a daily allotment of calories, fat, or sodium. Instead, it’s about what you’re eating, from heart-healthy unsaturated fats to satiating, high-fiber foods. Taking these ideals to heart, we’ve constructed a Mediterranean diet meal plan for beginners from breakfast to dinner. Our recipes maximize flavor and nutrition to create balanced and colorful plates that marry whole grains with vegetables, lean proteins, and more. On top of all of this deliciously nutritious eating, make sure to work physical activity into your day, especially if you have a desk job.
Mediterranean Diet Breakfast
Set a high bar before the day starts by packing in as much nutrition as possible. Opt for fiber-rich whole grains as a base and top with fresh fruit or homemade nut butter. Whole grain toast is a perfect canvas for any ingredient—try sliced avocado, summer tomatoes, eggs, and other toppings. Avoid sugary cereals and convenience foods.
Mediterranean Diet Lunch
Your midday meal is crucial fuel for afternoon energy, so make it count. Grain bowls make a perfectly packable lunch and deliver a diverse offering of healthy ingredients, from quinoa to canned tuna or salmon to roasted veggies. Here, it’s all about convenience—add a protein boost to a crisp, leafy green salad with cannellini beans or chicken, then pack into a Mason jar.
Mediterranean Diet Dinner
If lunch was a nutritional bust, then dinner is your chance for redemption. Focus on creating a balanced plate, and challenge yourself to go meatless at least once a week. Find small ways to boost the nutrition of your meal, whether it’s piling fresh arugula over homemade pizza, tossing leftover grilled veggies into pasta, or sprinkling chopped nuts or seeds over a salad.
- Seared Salmon Salad with Beets and Blackberries
- Mediterranean Chicken and Bulgur Skillet
- Mushroom and Arugula Pizza
- Veggie-Quinoa Soup
Mediterranean Diet Snacks
Cure an afternoon snack attack by munching on whole fruit such as apples or grapes, healthy nuts such as almonds, or raw vegetables such as carrots or celery dunked in nut butter, hummus, or Greek yogurt dip. If you have time, make homemade hummus or fruit and veggie chips.
Mediterranean Meal Shopping List Ideas
You have the knowledge, you have the recipes—now it’s time to put everything to the test. First, set yourself up for success by stocking your pantry with best Mediterranean diet foods, from the healthiest seafood to the healthiest nuts and seeds. Next time you visit the grocery store or farmers’ market, refer to this handy shopping list.
- Kale, Swiss chard, arugula
- Leeks, onions, shallots, garlic
- Radishes, beets, carrots
- Sweet potatoes
- Canned tuna, salmon, or anchovies
- Fresh salmon or mackerel, oysters, mussels
- Lean game meats such as quail, duck, and bison
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Canola oil
- Safflower oil
Whole Grain Ideas
- Wheat Berries
Nut and Seed Ideas
- Almonds, pine nuts, walnuts
- Sesame seeds
- Feta, goat cheese, haloumi, ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Greek yogurt
- Olives, avocados, tomatoes,
- Figs, apricots, dates
- Pears, oranges, grapes, cherries, pomegranates
- Chickpeas, cannellini beans, fava beans
- Lentils, split peas
Condiments and Spices
- Fig spread
- Hummus, tapenade, pesto,
- Ground cumin, turmeric, ground coriander, Spanish paprika (also called pimentón)
- Saffron threads
“Characteristics of the Mediterranean Diet.” Oldways. 25 August 2017. https://oldwayspt.org/traditional-diets/mediterranean-diet/traditional-med-diet
Diekman, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD, FADA, FAND, Connie. The Everything Mediterranean Diet Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. E-book. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1440506752
Duyff MS, RDN, FAND, CFCS, Roberta L. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food & Nutrition Guide, Revised & Updated 5th Edition. New York: Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017. Print.
This story originally appeared on Cooking Light.