What Is the Mediterranean Diet? Dietitians Explain How to Follow This Healthy Eating Plan
It’s not a fancy supplement or pricey prescription. Turns out, one of the best meds for your body is the Mediterranean diet. “There’s extensive research that a Mediterranean way of eating can promote lower risk of most chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. People who eat this way tend to be naturally more active, enjoy food as a happy part of life, and are also more likely to live longer,” explains Laura Burak, a registered dietitian and owner of Laura Burak Nutrition in Roslyn, New York. “Oh, and let’s not forget red wine is allowed in moderation!”
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What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
“The Mediterranean diet is a nutritionally balanced eating pattern or style, rather than what we may typically think of when we hear the word ‘diet,’" says Michelle Hyman, a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss. "While it’s most likely associated with Greece, there are many versions from surrounding areas.”
Voted Best Diet Overall of 2020 by the U.S. News & World Report, a Mediterranean diet plan also earns top ranks from Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counseling firm, To The Pointe Nutrition, in New York City. Here are her top three reasons:
- It’s not restrictive. More limited diets (we’re looking at you, keto diet) can “have negative psychological and biological repercussions,” according to Fine, since they cut out or restrict certain foods or macronutrients. Conversely, the Mediterranean diet guidelines are more suggestions to focus on nutrient-rich sources of various Mediterranean diet foods.
- It’s attainable. The Mediterranean diet can be very budget-friendly, and if you choose options like our fastest-ever Mediterranean recipes for every meal of the day, it can be schedule-friendly, too. “Adding vegetables is easy if you choose frozen veggies, which compare nutritionally to their fresh counterparts,” Fine says. “Lean proteins can be prepped in advance, or substituted with beans or high-protein grains like quinoa and farro.”
- It’s all about quality. “It’s not a matter of eating or avoiding any one type of macronutrient. Rather, it’s a matter of choosing higher-quality food sources of these macronutrients,” Fine says. On a Mediterranean diet plan, you can score a healthy balance by leaning into:
- Carbs from plant-based, minimally-processed carbohydrate-containing foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains
- Lean proteins from quinoa, farro, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, eggs and lean cuts of poultry and beef
- Fats from unsaturated sources like nuts, seeds, fish and oils
“The principles of this diet are not only healthy, but also simple and delicious. This diet focuses more on health rather than gimmicky restrictive weight-loss diets that are unsustainable due to their plans that don’t provide enough calories, flavor or pleasure for the long haul,” Burak says.
What are the Potential Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet?
Mediterranean diet benefits are vast and proven time and time again by nutrition researchers. Among other body benefits, following a Mediterranean diet has been correlated with a longer lifespan and less risk for cardiovascular disease, according to a review published in the journal BMC Medicine.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the typical Mediterranean diet is about 50% to 60% of calories from carbohydrates, 25% to 35% from unsaturated fats, and the rest, about 15% to 25%, from protein. It’s not low in fat, but it is low in unhealthy saturated fats, which your heart will love. Replacing just 5% of calories from saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (found in sunflower oil, walnuts and fatty fish) slashes the risk of cardiovascular disease by 25%, according to research performed for the American College of Cardiology.
“Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids offer anti-inflammatory properties benefiting heart health, and are metabolized into EPA and DHA, two powerful nutrients for brain health. Omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acids protect our hearts,” Fine says, and both of these are abundant in Mediterranean diet foods.
In addition to the heart and brain wins of the Mediterranean diet, Hyman adds that this eating style may lower bad cholesterol, aid in blood sugar management, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes.
What Are the Best Mediterranean Diet Foods?
As we mentioned, Mediterranean diet guidelines are less strict than most other diets. Aim for at least 5 servings of vegetables, 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of whole grains each day, the dietitians we tapped suggest. Eat dairy and red meat in moderation, and incorporate several vegetarian meals each week with beans and/or legumes as the base of the main dish. Swap extra virgin olive oil in for butter and other solid fats as often as possible.
“As a practitioner who has seen diets come and go over the last 20 years, this diet has principles that put an emphasis on real, fresh and plant-based foods. It recommends building meals with plenty of fruits, veggies, fish, beans, whole grains and heart-healthy fats, which is how we should all be eating in the past, present and future, in my opinion,” Burak says.
Is Anything Off-Limits on the Mediterranean Diet?
“The diet does not provide any strict rules of ‘do not eat’ foods like most diets, which is one of the many things I love about it. But it does recommend that you limit red meat, refined grains like processed white bread, and sugary processed food like candy and cookies,” Burak says.
Instead of having “off-limits” items, Mediterranean diet meal plans emphasize quality food and allow flexibility for the “extras” like dark chocolate and red wine.
“When you learn how to appreciate real food and what it does for your mind and body, the diet mentality from sometimes decades of restrictive dieting begins to slowly disappear and you become a happier, healthier version of yourself without deprivation,” Burak adds.
With that being said, certain foods are “de-emphasized,” Hyman says. Steer clear of these foods, if possible, when building your Mediterranean diet shopping list:
- Refined grains
- Added sugars
- Processed snack foods
- Processed meats
- Refined oils
Note that the red wine you often hear touted as part of the Mediterranean diet plan is best in moderation—no more than one glass per day—and is not a must, of course.
“If an individual does not currently drink or drinks very infrequently, it’s advisable to avoid increasing alcoholic beverage intake,” Hyman says. “Many of the antioxidants found in wine can be obtained from food,” such as dark-colored berries and grapes.
A Sample Day on the Mediterranean Diet
Now that we’ve covered what you can eat on the Mediterranean diet, how does that actually translate into a menu? Here’s a sample Mediterranean diet meal plan for a day, which fits a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet and is around the range of those flexible Mediterranean diet macros mentioned above.
Breakfast: Pressure Cooker Multigrain Honey-Almond Breakfast Cereal
- 254 calories
- 4 grams of fat
- 50 grams of carbohydrates
- 7 grams of protein
Snack: 1 medium apple and 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 191 calories
- 8 grams of fat
- 25 grams of carbohydrates
- 4 grams of protein
Lunch: Lemon-Dill Bulgur Salad with Salmon
- 370 calories
- 14 grams of fat
- 45 grams of carbohydrates
- 19 grams of protein
Snack: 1 ounce of almonds and 1 cup of blueberries
- 250 calories
- 14 grams of fat
- 27 grams of carbohydrates
- 7 grams of protein
Dinner: Grain and Veggie Bowl with a 5-ounce glass of red wine
- 643 calories
- 30 grams of fat
- 48 grams of carbohydrates
- 23 grams of protein
Dessert: Chocolate and Mango Yogurt
- 238 calories
- 17 grams of fat
- 20 grams of carbohydrates
- 6 grams of protein
Drinks throughout the day: Water, unsweetened tea
Total Mediterranean diet macros and nutrition breakdown for this sample day:
- 1,946 calories
- 87 grams of fat (24%)
- 217 grams of carbohydrates (58%)
- 66 grams of protein (18%)
“The Mediterranean diet is still standing and still highly recommended today from when it really began gaining interest in the U.S. in the 1960s, almost 60 years ago. What other diet can you say that about? I think none,” Burak says. “Plus its principles are delicious and satisfying which is a crucial component of a healthy sustainable way of eating and living.”
Now that sounds like our kind of prescription.