Mediterranean Diet: A Guide to Get You Started

For the third year in a row, the U.S. News and World Report has named the Mediterranean diet the best diet overall in their annual rankings. The heart-healthy, long-term dietary plan focuses on fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and calls for reducing unhealthy fats and sugars. Studies and anecdotal reports suggest adopting these eating practices could help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and decrease the risk of heart disease and other illnesses, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Best of all, the foods encouraged on the Mediterranean diet are available throughout most of North America.

Focus on Plant-Based Foods

The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods — fruits, vegetables, and grains — to fill the bulk of your nutritional needs. Add salads, steamed or grilled vegetables, fresh-cut fruit and a handful of nuts to your daily diet in place of fried or sugary snacks and side dishes. Pack a bag of grapes or apple slices for your midafternoon snack, and fill up on salad before the main course at each meal. Try to stick to organic, healthy options rather than prepackaged foods.

Switch to Whole Grains

Whole grains have many important nutrients, including protein, fiber, and antioxidants — they are healthy carbohydrates. The Mediterranean diet encourages the whole-grain option for products such as pasta and bread, which is more nutrient-rich than processed white-flour goods. Consuming whole grains in moderation is an important part of the diet because carbohydrates provide much of the body’s energy.

Embrace Olive Oil

Olive oil is easy to substitute for butter or oil in almost any recipe. This type of oil does not contain the same saturated and trans fats found in butter and margarine. One popular meal on the Mediterranean diet is slices of whole-grain bread dipped in olive oil for a flavorful appetizer or light lunch. Olive oil is also popular on salads and in cooking, though it has a lower smoke point than butter, coconut oil, and canola oil. Extra-virgin olive oils are best because they retain more nutrients than more processed options.

Eat More Fish

Eating more seafood can improve heart health. Salmon, tuna, and trout are some of the most popular, but clams, oysters, and mussels also carry many benefits. Even crab and lobster are healthy, provided they aren’t doused in butter. Fish and their counterparts offer nutritious omega-3 oils and plenty of other nutrients. The Mediterranean diet encourages including seafood in at least two meals a week.

Avoid Red Meat

The Mediterranean diet consists of minimal red meat. Rather, vegetables and whole grains should serve as the bulk of most meals, with seafood and moderate portions of lean poultry for iron, B vitamins, and other nutrients most easily absorbed from animal sources. Though it is alright to incorporate a bit of red meat into the diet, like any healthy eating plan, it is best to avoid processed meats.

Water, Wine, Coffee, and Tea

Sodas and other sugary drinks should be avoided on the Mediterranean diet. Water is the best hydration — it ensures the body has sufficient fluids for all its processes and can aid weight loss by making you feel fuller throughout the day. Coffee and tea are also acceptable beverage choices, ideally served without milk or sweeteners. Wine lovers will rejoice at the knowledge that the Mediterranean diet encourages a glass of red wine each day. Research suggests red wine can decrease the risk of heart disease.

Savor Each Bite

The Mediterranean diet is more than just a fad — it is a way of life for millions of people, both in its region of origin and beyond. That is why, in addition to food guidelines, the diet also encourages certain eating habits. Ideally, people will consume their meals without distractions like television or work. Focus on the flavor and taste of each bite, and savor every forkful. Whenever possible, dine with friends and family. Making each meal into a celebration helps make it an enjoyable and mindful experience.

Meal Ideas: Fresh Greens with Hummus

Lunch is often the most rushed meal of the day, and as such, can be difficult to prepare following the Mediterranean diet. Instead of buying convenience food, prepare a salad for a healthy noon treat. Mixed greens like spinach and arugula make the perfect iron-rich salad base. Slice cucumbers and tomatoes, top with kalamata olives and sprinkle with feta cheese. For dressing, use a tablespoon of olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar. If you need a bit more bulk, toast a whole-grain pita brushed with olive oil and cut it into chips. Dip the chips in hummus for a boost of healthy fats and carbohydrates.

Avocado Toast and Eggs

Avocado toast is an easy and healthy option for a Mediterranean diet breakfast. Simply toast a slice of whole-grain bread and spread mashed avocado on the toast. Top this heart-healthy combination with a cooked egg and a tiny dash of salt and pepper for flavor. You’ll get all the nutrients you need to start your day, including omega-3, protein, and vitamins. Unlike a fast food breakfast sandwich, this light combination offers energy without the crash later.

Mediterranean Pizza

On the Mediterranean diet, you might have to avoid the meat lovers’ special with extra cheese, but there are healthy alternatives. A whole-grain crust slathered in olive oil and garlic (or make your own marinara) and covered in roasted veggies is a great option. Top it with fresh mozzarella or feta and fresh basil. Peppers, onions, olives, artichokes, spinach, and tomatoes are some of the most popular Mediterranean-friendly pizza toppings.

Chickpea Stew

Chickpeas are one of the healthiest legumes, packed with protein and fiber. They’re popular in the Mediterranean diet, which promotes legumes as a good replacement for meats. A great way to prepare chickpeas is to make stew, mixing in other vegetables like zucchini, red peppers, carrots, squash, and eggplant. Combine these with onion, garlic, and other spices in a tomato sauce broth for a hearty, filling dish.

Lamb Chops and Mint Salad

Although it is best to avoid red meat on the Mediterranean diet, lamb is still a popular choice because it’s often leaner than beef. Grilled lamb chops with a mint and garlic rub are a flavorful main dish. Use the remainder of the mint leaves in a salad, combining them with fresh greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. Top with a pinch of feta and a sprinkle of lemon juice, and you have a tasty side salad to pair with your lamb. This lean meat can be eaten once every week or two.

Greek Yogurt With Fruit

Greek yogurt mixed with fruit makes for a quick, light morning snack and a healthy, heart-friendly option that contains a lot of protein, which provides energy throughout the day. Mixing fresh fruits like berries or banana into yogurt adds other important vitamins and minerals. Greek yogurt parfaits are popular on the Mediterranean diet because they help quell cravings for sweets.

Baked Stuffed Salmon

Fish doesn’t have to be bland and boiled just because it isn’t fried in butter. Try making stuffed salmon. Cut salmon fillets open down the center, using a butterfly technique. Spread feta cheese over the fillet and top with spinach, then roll it up. Brush the fish with olive oil and spices to complete this flavorful and healthy meal.

Lemon Basil Linguini

Unlike many diets, the Mediterranean diet incorporates pasta quite often. Whole-grain linguini with lemon and basil is a healthy, tasty option. After cooking the pasta, mix it with lemon juice, a splash of olive oil, and fresh basil leaves. Tossing in a small amount of cheese can add a bit of creamy flavor. Amp up the protein with some grilled shrimp or chicken tossed in the same sauce. Remember, always use whole-grain pasta which has a higher nutritional value than regular pasta.