While sexier diets have popped up in the intervening years (hello keto you gorgeous thing), the Mediterranean diet is still well loved. In fact, it was recently ranked #1 most popular diet in the USA7. So in this guide we’re going to show you exactly what the diet involves, why it is amazing for your health and even what a day of eating looks like on the diet. Plus, you’ll discover exactly which foods to eat daily, weekly and monthly. Let’s go!
Ultimate Guide to the Mediterranean Diet
Researched & Written by
Bailey Franzen MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Carolyn Quijano MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Edited by Digest Life team
Last Updated: 7 April 2021
Why they’re good to eat regularly, but not every day.
Fish & Shellfish
Bordering the Mediterranean sea, fish and shellfish are a natural part of the Mediterranean Diet framework. Some Mediterranean Diet guidelines suggest eating ≥ 2 100g servings per week, preferably of fatty fish.
A review study that looked at the relationship between fish or fish oil intake and coronary heart disease mortality found that eating 250 mg/day of particular omega 3 fats found in fatty fish (EPA and DHA) reduced coronary heart disease mortality by 36%.
However, no further reductions happened for higher amounts. This 250 mg/day dose is well within reach when consuming 2 servings of fatty fish per week.8
For those adhering to a more plant-based diet, supplemental marine algal oil effectively increases DHA levels in vegetarians and vegans.13
Eggs are occasionally eaten on the Mediterranean Diet with some Mediterranean Diet guidelines suggesting a max of 2-4 eggs per week.8
Eating one egg per day has not been associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in people without diabetes. However, one egg per day is associated with an increase in the risk of coronary heart disease in diabetics but a reduced association with hemorrhagic stroke.
Eating 5 eggs per week has been associated with a 5% increased risk of breast cancer.8
A review that looked at the results of 8 studies with 30,352 deaths found a 10% increased risk of mortality by increasing eggs up to 60 g/day (near the amount one would get from eating one large egg per day).10
Moderate amounts of dairy are eaten in the Mediterranean, with many guidelines suggesting around 2-3 servings per day. Interestingly, some guidelines suggest very small serving sizes8 of dairy compared against serving sizes recommended by the USDA. Think of dairy like a condiment, topping off a salad or pasta to complete a dish as opposed to it being the star on the plate. At the same time, other resources offer fewer specifics about serving sizes.
In most of the Mediterranean, dairy is eaten more often as cheese and yogurt than milk in comparison to Northern European countries.1
Many kinds of cheese in Mediterranean countries are made from sheep’s milk (e.g., Roquefort, Manchego, Feta, etc.) and goat’s milk (e.g., chevre).1
Opting for sheep and goat’s milk products may carry some significance for health outcomes. Goat and sheep milk are higher in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a particular type of saturated fat that has not been associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Fresh goat cheese containing 40% total fat content comprises 15% MCT, while a comparable cow’s milk cheese would have closer to 7% MCT.1
Goat milk products still contain other fats that are known to increase LDL cholesterol. Still, the overall fat profile seems more favorable than cow’s milk. The Mediterranean Diet as a whole appears to tilt the balance in favor of heart health.
A review that looked at 126,759 deaths in 27 studies found no detrimental effects from dairy intake up to 750g/day; however, intakes of ≤1000 g/d were associated with a 15% increased risk of mortality. 10
With no complaints here, moderate wine drinking (especially red wine) with meals is common on the Mediterranean Diet. Several studies from outside of Mediterranean countries have shown that moderate alcohol consumption increases cancer risk. However, the Mediterranean Diet (wine and all) seems to reduce overall cancer risk.
Drinking red wine with meals instead of on an empty stomach may help to slow alcohol absorption in the gut. This keeps blood alcohol levels more steady, which may help to limit the production of cancer-causing compounds.
Red wine may also have some health-promoting effects because it contains beneficial plant compounds called phenols. The same protective compounds aren’t found in such a high quantity in other beverages like beer or spirits more commonly consumed outside of the Meditteranean.1
Why it’s best to limit them to special occasions.
Red meat makes less of an appearance on the Mediterranean Diet, with several guidelines suggesting that red meat servings be kept to less than 2-100 g servings per week.8
While red meat isn’t a mainstay on the Mediterranean Diet, some traditional food and livestock practices likely help reduce some of the risks of red meat consumption.
For example, marinades made with antioxidant-rich olive oil, red wine, onions, garlic, and herbs can help to block the creation of cancer-causing compounds (heterocyclic amines) that can be formed when cooking meat at high temperatures (frying, grilling, etc.).
The animal’s environment and diet makes a difference in the quality of the animal protein.
For example, goats and sheep are raised in the pasture, while pigs prefer woodland spaces. This can result in leaner meat, especially for pigs running in open areas such as Sardinia and Corsica. Pigs from this region have lower saturated fat levels in their total fat composition, with up to 40-50% of the fat coming from monounsaturated fat. 1
The traditional Mediterranean Diet keeps processed meat to a minimum, with some guidelines suggesting ≤ 1 (50 g) serving per week.8
A review which looked at seven studies with a total of 143,572 deaths found that increasing intakes of processed meat up to 200 g/day was associated with a 60% increase in all-cause mortality.10
Sweets & Treats
People eating a traditional Mediterranean Diet very rarely have sweets, cakes, and cookies. The traditional Mediterranean Diet also greatly restricts sweetened beverages like soda or sports drinks, fast foods, and fried foods.1
- Most of the best foods to eat daily on the Mediterranean diet won’t surprise you – hello vegetables, fruits, healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds. But in a carb-scared world, you might be happy to know legumes and certain grains also fit in here. As well as red wine.
- Meanwhile, good foods to eat weekly include poultry, eggs, fish, seafood and certain dairy (cheese, yogurt and dark chocolate). Beer and cider fit here too.
- Finally, we saw other foods are okay to eat, but should be limited to monthly or reserved for special occasions. This included red meat, other types of dairy (eg cream), as well as beverages like fruit juices.
- Eating on this diet is fun! As you saw above, you can enjoy some delicious carbs like bread, pasta and berries, while also getting healthy proteins and fats to keep you full. The perfect combination.
- Interestingly, each meal you eat throughout the day will typically use fruit as a dessert of sorts. Your taste buds will love it!
Source of Total Calories
- Protein - 15.6%
- Carbohydrates - 50.3%
- Fat - 34.1%
Source of Calories from Fat
- Saturated Fat - 6.2%
- Mon Fat - 15.6%
- Poly Fat - 8.2%
- Trans Fatty Acid - 0.0%
- Other - 4.1%
- The Mediterranean diet is almost the polar opposite to today’s trendy diets like keto or carnivore diet. Instead of most calories coming from fat or protein, if you eat this diet they’ll mainly come from carbs.
- If you look at the meals above, you can see the diet is low protein, high carb, medium fat. The type of macros best suited for longevity.
- Lastly, when it comes to fats – most in this diet come from unsaturated sources.
By America’s Test Kitchen
This is a fantastic book with a whopping 500 recipes inside using all the healthy Med diet ingredients we highlighted above. But it’s so much more, as it teaches you how to think about cooking Mediterranean style so you can eventually riff on ingredients you have and create your own delicious meals.
By Serena Ball RD
If you often find yourself short on time, then Ball’s recipes will get you excited. They are intelligently designed to be fast to make (around 30 minutes), so perfect for everyday cooking. And they taste great. Hello roasted red pepper chicken with hummus!
By America’s Test Kitchen
There is no easier way to cook than with an instant pot (aka pressure cooker). You literally just put all the ingredients in, set the timer and voila…soon dinner is ready. ATK’s Med Diet recipes instant-pot-style is a winner for the time starved.
- The Mediterranean diet is pretty easy to follow. Not only is there great diversity in foods to eat so you won’t get bored, but you can even eat some foods most trendy diets would consider ‘naughty’, such as bread and pasta.
- Since the focus is on whole foods, there is some cooking to do. But thankfully, there are 1000s of quick and tasty recipes out there for it.
- Finally, if you like snacking, you’ll love the options this diet gives you – from nuts to veggies with dip, it has it all.
- There is compelling research that suggests eating a Mediterranean diet will reduce your risks of suffering many diseases, especially in terms of cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
- But people love the diet for many other reasons. It tastes great, is relatively cheap (compared to higher protein diets) and can be quite environmentally friendly.
- Warning #1 – when starting the diet, make sure to gradually increase your fiber intake.
- Warning #2 – enjoy the flexibility of the diet, but don’t eat too much of the ‘occasional’ foods and drinks (eg red meat and dairy).
- Warning #3 – if you’re going to eat like people in the Med, then don’t forget to also live like them. Whether it is more socializing over food or taking a siesta in the afternoon, slow down to the pace of the Med.
Summary & Verdict
- The Mediterranean Diet was first described in the 1950s after observing people living in Southern Italy and Greece, eating the traditional local diet, had more favorable cardiovascular health outcomes.
- The Mediterranean Diet is now one of the most well-researched diets out there. Research suggests that people who most closely follow a traditional Mediterranean Diet have a reduced occurrence of several chronic diseases.
- Core components of the Mediterranean Diet include the use of olive oil as a staple fat, a large quantity and diversity of plant foods (whole grain cereals, raw and cooked vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, legumes, and nuts), fish, moderate amounts of meat and dairy, and moderate intakes of red wine with meals.
- Because the Mediterranean Diet is more of a concept than a strict set of rules, the diet can be easier to follow over the long term as a lifestyle. While the intake of less healthful foods is significantly reduced on the Mediterranean Diet, nothing is entirely off-limits, which helps sustain this way of eating. Just be sure to keep in mind the Mediterranean Diet’s core fundamentals and stick with those most of the time to reap the benefits of the diet.