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Let’s Break Down The Mediterranean Diet

What is the Mediterranean diet?

Time and time again, you hear of the different diets you should be following. Maybe it’s your aunt during the holidays, maybe it’s the friend you share lunch with, maybe it’s your Instagram feed –– whether you ask for it or not, you're constantly bombarded with diet information. Paleo, keto, Whole 30, gluten-free. What’s next?

Well, I propose an alternate option. Rather than looking for a new fad or diet trend, maybe it’s time we look back. Not back to our paleolithic ancestors, but back to the Romans and the Greeks. To a diet that has stood the test of time. A diet that has been recognized worldwide as one of the healthiest diets and lifestyles to follow. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about the Mediterranean diet –– a balanced and inclusive diet that’s been recognized in the US Dietary Guidelines as one of their healthy eating patterns (there are only 3 so that actually means something).

Let’s take a deeper look at the Mediterranean diet …

Why is the Mediterranean good for you?

The Mediterranean diet has many health benefits. It’s been shown to have protective properties that fight against cardiovascular disease, cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, kidney disease, and many other diseases and conditions. Pretty impressive right?

But what about the Mediterranean diet is so good for us? Which specific foods provide these benefits? Can’t we just consume it in excess and all our problems will be solved? The truth is, we can’t. Because it’s not only about one particular food or food group. And it’s not as simple as eliminating one of those either. Though studied for years, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where each health benefit is coming from. Yes, we know fatty fish is good for battling cognitive impairment and a diet high in fiber helps balance blood sugar –– but the Mediterranean diet is about more than food. Rather than restricting or focusing on one particular food group or ingredient, the Mediterranean diet focuses on incorporating healthy food items, balancing consumption, remaining active, and social connection.

The dietary piece isn’t lacking either. It focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and Healthy Fats –– it’s no surprise that it’s one of the healthiest eating patterns out there.

Just from the fruit and vegetables alone, you are consuming many essential nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, fiber, and folate. Vitamin C helps our bodies absorb non-heme iron (iron from plants), heal and repair tissue, and keeps our gums and immune system healthy. Vitamin A is important for skin and eye health. Potassium is shown to reduce blood pressure, especially in those who have hypertension or high blood pressure. And fiber helps with bowel function and reduces LDL (or bad) cholesterol.

Now that you know about the many health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, do you actually know what foods you should be eating when following it?

Let's explore what the Mediterranean diet is made up of, what foods it incorporates, and how often you should eat each of these foods.

The staples you should be consuming-

Consume These Daily:

  • Grains (aim for mostly whole grains): brown rice, quinoa, barley, steel cut or rolled oats, farro, and whole wheat pastas, breads, crackers
  • Vegetables: greens (spinach, kale, lettuce, arugula), artichoke, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Fruit: raspberries, apples, orange, blueberries, strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, apricots, grapefruit
  • Beans, legumes, and nuts: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, lentils, hummus, cannellini beans, nuts or nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, pecan, sunflower seed)
  • Olive oil
  • Cheese and yogurt: plain greek yogurt (no added sugar), feta cheese

Plant based foods like fruit and vegetables should be consumed daily in the Mediterranean diet, and in abundance. Do not restrict the amount of fruit and vegetables you are eating. In the Mediterranean diet you should be consuming 4-8 servings of non-starchy vegetables, and 4-6 servings of whole grains every day. For legumes and nuts, as well as fruit, you should be consuming 2-4 servings per day. Healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), which is the main dietary fat of the Mediterranean diet, should be consumed 4-6 times a day. For low-fat dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, you should be consuming 1-3 servings per day.

Consume These Weekly:

  • Fish: salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, halibut, cod, tilapia
  • Poultry: chicken breast/thigh/wing, chicken sausages, turkey breast, turkey burgers, sliced deli turkey
  • Eggs
  • Sweets

In the Mediterranean Diet, fish and poultry should be eaten in low or moderate amounts, around 2-3 times a week. When eating fish, opt for fatty fish like salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel to increase your consumption of essential fats like omega-3. Eggs should be consumed in low amounts and egg yolks should be limited to 4 or less per week. Sweets with added or concentrated sugars should only be consumed a few times per week and should be limited or switched out for fruit, which is typically the dessert option in the Mediterranean diet.

Consume These Monthly:

  • Meat: hamburgers, steak, pork chops, bbq ribs, meatloaf, ground beef or pork, pork sausages

Red meat, such as beef, pork, lamb, and veal, should only be consumed a few times monthly, around 3-4 times.

Lifestyle Factors:

Remember, the Mediterranean diet isn't just about food –– it’s also about lifestyle. It’s important to get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every week. Some exercises that will help increase your heart rate are things like biking, swimming, running, hiking, and even brisk walking. It’s also important to remember to choose activities or exercises that you enjoy doing! Like to dance? Put some music on and move! Enjoy spending time in nature? Go for a hike with a friend. It’ll be more sustainable if you enjoy what you’re doing. And remember, the Mediterranean diet is all about sustainability.

The Takeaway...

Overall, the Mediterranean diet focuses on increasing whole plant foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). It aims to consume decreased amounts of processed sugar, red meat, and animal fats like butter or lard. Social connection is a key component to living a healthy lifestyle as well as exercise.

Written by Isabelle Hammack

Reviewed by Kelly Powers, MA, RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog highlighting whole foods, simple recipes, and her life in San Francisco. She’s the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. Kelly is also a co-founder of Olivaio.