Top 10 Foods To Include In Your Mediterranean Diet
Although the Mediterranean diet primarily focuses on plant-based protein, such as legumes, lentils, and tempeh, seafood is consumed occasionally. Salmon is a great source of omega-3’s and vitamin B-6. Omega 3’s decrease insulin resistance, meaning your body is more sensitive to insulin and can take up glucose in your blood, making it a great option for those living with T2DM or pre-diabetes (1). Additionally, omega 3’s reduce triglyceride levels which is beneficial because a buildup of triglycerides could eventually harden arteries and lead to heart disease. Vitamin B-6 is an essential nutrient, meaning our body does not synthesize it, so it needs to be consumed. It’s important for creating red blood cells and metabolizing proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Deficiency in Vitamin B-6 may lead to anemia. Salmon is the perfect addition to sheet pan meals and also goes well in salads. If it’s within your budget, try to purchase wild over farmed salmon, as farmed salmon have higher persistent organic pollutants and contaminant levels as well as possible antibiotic usage (2).
Due to their high fiber and antioxidant content, berries are one of the best fruits to consume on a Mediterranean diet. This includes strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, with raspberries containing the most fiber. In addition, they’re also a good source of vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin K1. What’s so great about fiber? Fiber is essential for your gut health. The bacteria in your gut (large intestine) feed on fiber, and if you do not consume enough, they may eat away at the mucus layer of your intestine and cause a bacterial infection or inflammatory disease. In fact, one study showed increased levels of the fiber-degrading Faecalibacterium prausnitzii (bacteria) and genes for microbial carbohydrate degradation upon following a Mediterranean diet (3). This means that the increased fiber intake while on the Mediterranean diet led to a positive change in the composition of the gut microbiome. Fiber can also relieve constipation and ensure smooth bowel movements. Try eating berries as a snack or on top of yogurt and oatmeal for breakfast.
What should you eat for breakfast? Although dairy is consumed in moderation on the Mediterranean diet one of the best choices, for when you do consume dairy, is Greek yogurt. Compared to virtually any other yogurt, Greek yogurt has a higher protein content. Unsweetened Greek yogurt is tart and contains less sugar because the lactose-containing whey is removed through straining. Greek yogurt is also a great source of vitamin B-12, calcium, and probiotics. Probiotics restore and add to your gut microbiome. Watch out for low-fat, “greek-style”, and Flavored Yogurts. Sticking with the plain, unsweetened option is your best choice as it will have no added sugars, thickening agents, and the like. Make it sweet by adding your own berries!
Olive oil is commonly referred to as liquid gold and is a staple of the Mediterranean diet. High in mono and polyunsaturated fats, olive oil can protect against heart disease by guarding LDL particles against oxidizing and becoming reactive free radicals that can cause inflammation (4). From dressing salads to roasting or grilling veggies to adding it to cake, olive oil can be used in a variety of ways.
When you can, consume nuts such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pistachios. They’re high in antioxidants, trace minerals, and may help with losing weight. In a study further analyzing the PREDIMED diet, participants on the Mediterranean diet, supplemented with olive oil and nuts saw significant reductions from baseline in weight circumference as well as lower LDL and higher HDL concentrations (5). LDL is bad, while HDL is good because it effluxes cholesterol out of cells to the liver in order to be converted to bile acids and secreted in the urine. Make sure to shop for the unsalted or low salt options. Eating nuts alone rather than candied, salted, or in trail mix is the way to go. Also, make sure to check your serving size. Though nuts are high in healthy fat, they’re also high in calories and a little goes a long way.
Quinoa is a naturally gluten-free whole grain. It’s also a complete protein that provides fiber. When you add quinoa to water and let it boil, it becomes fluffy. Add it to a salad to keep you fuller for longer, or substitute it where you would normally eat rice. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains over refined grains since refined grains are stripped of their fiber and nutrients due to processing. Refined grains are higher in carbohydrates and, without fiber, lead to a spike in blood sugar. Other foods containing whole grains include whole wheat bread, oatmeal, farro, bulgur, and buckwheat.
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are legumes that are full of plant-based protein. Did you know chickpeas contain all the essential amino acids except for one? (7) They’re perfect for salads or you can blend them to make hummus and even use them as an ingredient for cookies! Check out this Olivaio hummus recipe to get started.
The more colorful and diverse your diet is, the more nutrients and antioxidants you’ll receive. Eggplants contain a pigment called anthocyanin which gives them their purple color (8). Anthocyanins act as antioxidants, fight free radicals, may have anti-inflammatory effects, and can help prevent high blood pressure (9).They are non-starchy and full of fiber! Other non-starchy vegetables such as zucchini and bell peppers are staples in the Mediterranean diet and are included in dishes such as roasted eggplant and stuffed peppers.
When consumed in moderation on the Mediterranean diet, red wine can increase longevity. This is because red wine contains an antioxidant, resveratrol, that increases the expression of SIRT1 (10). SIRT1 is an enzyme that mediates calorie restriction adaptations, and caloric restriction is associated with increased lifespan, so an increased expression of SIRT1 will contribute to longevity.
Now that you know more about the nutritional aspects and examples of foods to eat on a Mediterranean diet, you’re on your way to a heart-healthy life!
Written by Megan Huff
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.
Image Credit: unsplash.com @leigh-skomal @nicholas-barbaro @kym-ellis @aneta-pawlik @rene-lehmkuhl @ella-olsson @jocelyn-morales @alex-block @caroline-attwood
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Should I purchase farmed or wild salmon?
A: Wild salmon is the better option because farmed salmon have higher persistent organic pollutants and contaminant levels as well as possible antibiotic usage. If wild salmon is not within your budget it’s fine to eat farmed salmon. Check Seafood Watch for sustainable options.
Q: Can I still eat pasta and pizza on the Mediterranean diet?
A: Yes! No food should be off-limits. It’s important to note that in Italy, pizza and pasta are (link to Italian pizza/pasta post) fundamentally different: smaller portion sizes, less cheese, more fresh vegetables.
Q: I don’t like raw kale. How else can I consume it?
A: Try baking kale chips in the oven, sautéing it, or massaging your kale in olive oil or lemon juice (this makes it softer and breaks down the cellulose making it easier to digest).