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Last Updated: 19 July 2022

Ultimate Guide To The Mediterranean Diet

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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 USA 1. 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!
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Table of Contents

    What Is The Mediterranean Diet?

    I’m sure you’ve heard a bit about the popular Mediterranean Diet and maybe even have a decent understanding of what’s involved.

    Hello olive oil, fresh seafood, salads galore and days spent feeding on everything else from legumes to nuts, as well as some meat & dairy!

    Fresh pan-fried fish on a bed of legumes and veggies, topped with some herbs…welcome to the Mediterranean diet my friend!

    But before we get into figuring out the nitty gritty of this diet, we thought it might be useful to quickly look at why it was created and where it originated from.

    (This trip down memory lane will show you just how important this diet really is).

    Why was the Mediterranean diet created?

    So it turns out the Mediterranean Diet came onto the scene in the 1950’s when a researcher out of Minnesota named Ancel Keys first described the diet pattern.

    Keys was a pretty cool researcher!

    In fact, he carried out the landmark Seven Countries Study, which compared cardiovascular disease outcomes for study participants from the USA, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Japan.

    And here’s what he found out about the diet…

    Ancel Keys. Fun fact – he lived to 100 years old!. by Umberto on Unsplash

    It turned out that people from Italy & Greece who followed what Keys called a “Mediterranean Diet” enjoyed reduced all-cause mortality and showed the lowest mortality out of all groups from cardiovascular diseases. 1,2

    Building off Keys’s early research, the Mediterranean Diet is now one of the most well-studied diet patterns out there, with a google scholar search for “Mediterranean Diet,” showing more than 1.27 million search hits 3

    Screenshot of results on April 4, 2021.

    Does the Mediterranean Diet come from Italy, Greece or somewhere else?

    Okay so hopefully we don’t start a food fight here! You see, from all our research the Mediterranean Diet pattern as it is recommended today is mostly based around food habits observed in southern Italy and Greece back in the 1960s and 70s when Keys was doing his foundational research. 1,2 This is a critical distinction because, over time the Mediterranean region has sadly experienced a loss of some traditional (and likely beneficial) food habits. And we must also say, while Italy and Greece formed the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet, several other countries sit along the Mediterranean basin and also influence its food habits. With this in mind, we want to make it clear that the Mediterranean Diet is a diverse diet pattern.  And it actually varies from one Mediterranean country and culture to the next.5

    Generally speaking the diet includes:

    • The use of olive oil as a staple fat
    • A large emphasis on quantity and diversity of plant foods (whole grain cereals, raw and cooked vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, legumes, and nuts)
    • Plus fish and moderate amounts of meat and dairy
    • As well as a moderate intake of red wine with meals. 1

    What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet?

    Unlike so many other diets, the Mediterranean Diet has real research behind it and has demonstrated some incredible health benefits.

    People who follow a traditional Mediterranean Diet experience less chronic diseases, such as certain cancers, obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.6

    Not surprisingly, with the amount of evidence backing this way of eating, the Mediterranean Diet currently holds the title of most popular diet in the USA – as recently found in a US News & World Report.7

    US News ‘Best Diets Rankings’

    You should always have the space to be able to explode your identity. But I do think it’s really important to love your bare self before any of that.

    Margarett Lloyd, Dance Critic Christian Science Monitor

    Quick Summary

    What Foods Can You Eat On A Mediterranean Diet?

    If you’ve ever tried an ‘on trend’ diet before like the South Beach diet or the SIRT diet, you’re probably ready for us to tell you about all the foods you can’t eat on the Med diet.

    But here’s the thing…the Mediterranean diet is nowhere near as rigid as other diets that have very clear yes and no foods lists.  Instead, the Med diet is all about diversity!  Meaning it includes most foods.

    From eggs with peppers to olives, cheese and bread, the Mediterranean diet offers you a huge diversity in foods you can eat.

    Meaning there are foods you are encouraged to eat often – think daily. Others you can eat sometimes – think weekly. And finally a few foods you should only eat rarely – think monthly.

    Right now, we’re going to go through these 3 categories and show you all the foods that fit within them. That way you’ll know exactly what to focus on most of the time, but also aware of those other foods you can 100% eat on the Mediterranean diet, albeit not as often as you might be used to.

    Mediterranean Diet Food Diet List

    Eat Often Daily

    Vegetables – pretty much every veggie can be eaten daily, but the Med Diet is silent on vegetables from far away, e.g. bok choy.

    Fruits – same story as vegetables.

    Legumes – lentils & all beans.

    Grains – wheat, flour and products derived from them (eg sourdough bread, cous cous, bulgur etc), plus gluten-free grains like rice, oats etc.

    Fats – olive oil (it’s almost considered a ‘beverage’ on this diet!).

    Nuts – almonds, cashews, chestnut, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios & walnuts.

    Seeds – poppy, pumpkin, sesame & sunflower.

    Flavors – capers, garlic, ginger, onions, shallots, herbs, spices, peppers & salt.

    Beverages – water, wine, vegetable juice, coffee, tea, bone broth, buttermilk, kefir & milk.

    Eat Sometimes Weekly

    Protein – poultry, eggs, fish & seafood.

    Grains – slightly processed versions of the ‘eat often’ grains, e.g. crackers.

    Fats – animal fats and some other oils, e.g. walnut oil.

    Dairy – hard and soft cheeses, especially aged cheese, goats cheese and ricotta, as well as yogurt, Greek yogurt & dark chocolate.

    Flavors – honey & vinegar.

    Beverages – beer, cider & liqueurs.

    Eat Rarely Monthly

    Protein – meat, game, organ meats, deli / process meats.

    Grains – slightly processed versions of the ‘eat often’ grains, e.g. crackers.

    Fats – vegetable oils (e.g. canola oil), palm oil, coconut oil etc.

    Dairy – butter, cream, milk chocolate, ice cream.

    Flavors – sweeteners (e.g. agave), sugar.

    Beverages – clear & dark spirits, soda & diet soda, fruit juices etc.

    Eat Often: Why you should eat them daily.

    Eat Sometimes: Why they’re good to eat regularly, but not every day.

    Eat Rarely: Why it’s best to limit them to special occasions.

    Quick Summary

    What Different Versions Of The Diet Exist?

    Like most diets that have been around for some time, there are different offshoots of the Mediterranean diet.  Thankfully though, the 3 main versions of the diet are all pretty similar in their focus and intent.

    But they do have some interesting differences in the level of specificity of their recommendations.

    In particular, the 2019 “A Proposal for Italian People” food guidelines go very detailed, e.g. “1-2 x 15g serve of nuts per day”. And even give us clear guidance on more controversial foods like red meat and sweets.

    A snippet from the 2019 Mediterranean diet food guidelines. Worth a read!

    Mediterranean Diet pyramids compared.

    Food
    Pyramid 1
    Pyramid 2
    Pyramid 3
    Olive Oil
    Every Meal
    Every Meal
    3-4 (10 g) serves/day
    Vegetables
    Every Meal
    ≥2 serves every meal
    ≥2 (100 g) serves every main meal
    Fruits
    Every Meal
    1-2 serves every meal
    1-2 (100 g) serves every main meal
    Bread and Cereals
    Every Meal
    1-2 serves every meal
    1-2 (30 g) serves whole grains every main meal
    Legumes
    Every Meal
    ≥2 serves weekly
    ≥2 serves weekly
    Serving size:
    100 g (50 g dry)
    Nuts
    Every Meal
    1-2 serves daily
    1-2 (15g) serves daily
    Fish/Seafood
    Often, at least 2x per week
    ≥2 serves weekly
    ≥2 (100g) serves fish/shellfish, weekly
    Eggs
    Moderate portions daily to weekly
    2-4 serves weekly
    2-4 eggs/week
    Poultry
    Moderate portions daily to weekly
    2 serves weekly
    1-2 (100g) serves/week
    Dairy foods
    Moderate portions daily to weekly
    2 serves daily
    2-3 serves every day (preferably low fat) Serving sizes:
    * Milk 50 mL
    * Yogurt 50 g
    * Cheese 30 g
    Red meats
    Less often
    <2 serves/week
    ≤ 2 (100g) serves/week
    Processed meats
    ≤ 1 (50 g) serve/week
    Sweets
    Less often
    < 2 serves/week
    ≤ 2 (25g) serves/week
    Red wine
    In moderation
    In moderation
    In moderation

    Quick Summary

    What Typical Meals Do You Eat On The Diet?

    Vegetables.  Vegetables.  And more vegetables.

    Well, at least that’s what a lot of people think when they hear ‘Mediterranean diet’.  But how wrong they are!

    You see, here’s the really cool thing.  If you decide to try the Mediterranean diet perhaps the #1 thing you’ll fall in love with is just how diverse it is.  And that is a true blessing!

    Because it means the diet will be easy to stick to over time, as much needed variety keeps cravings for bad things away.  (Compare that to so many of the other crazy extreme diets out there, e.g. the carnviore diet!)

    Now with that said, we wanted to show you what a normal day on the diet might look like, so you have a really good idea of the types of dishes you might eat.  Enjoy!

    Quick Summary

    What Nutrients Are In These Typical Meals?

    If you ate these delicious meals in a day, here’s a quick look at what sort of nutrition your body would be taking in:

    Calories
    2012
    Protein
    82g
    Carbohydrates
    263g
    Total Fat

    79g

    •    36g Monounsaturated Fat
    •    19g Polyunsaturated Fat
    •    0g Trans Fat

    Fiber
    48g
    Added Sugar
    12g

    Source of Total Calories

    Source of Total Calories from Fat

    Quick Summary

    How Easy Is It To Do The Mediterranean Diet?

    If you like breaking the “diet rules” every once in a while and being much more flexible in your food choices, then the Mediterranean Diet may be an appealing diet for you!

    Plus, this diet is more of a concept than a strict list of foods to eat, making it easier to follow as a lifestyle.

    There is also a familiarity to the Med diet because it somewhat mirrors what the USDA calls The Plate Method, with lots of vegetables, whole grains, protein, dairy, fruits, and little sweets and processed foods.

    Fresh pan-fried fish on a bed of legumes and veggies, topped with some herbs. by Umberto on Unsplash

    Best of all, the diet is flexible

    You see, although on a day-to-day basis you’re mainly eating foods on the ‘often’ (aka daily) list, you’re still able to fit in some of the foods you love if they fit under the ‘rare’ (aka monthly) list.

    Hello delicious cake my precious…

    In other words, all foods essentially fit in the Mediterranean Diet, it is just a matter of how often they can be eaten.  And this really makes us realize just how good the Mediterranean Diet is at supporting a healthier relationship with food!

    Now with that said, the diet may be challenging at times as we are limiting processed foods, added sugars, and working hard to find the right types of healthy fats.

    In addition, following this diet will involve lots of grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking.

    You see, unfortunately this is not the type of diet where you can open a package or pop something in the microwave for a complete meal, as it is more whole foods focused.

    But nothing to fear here! Just get your Pinterest boards up and ready, search around for “Mediterranean diet recipes” and you’re bound to discover loads of tasty & simple recipes. So start pinning!

    Click here to checkout these delicious Pinterest Med diet recipes!

    Snacking on the Med diet is easy too (and filling).  For example, skip the croissant, cookies, or candy and instead, grab a handful of nuts, some fruit, veggies and hummus, or some olives. You can’t go wrong with some extra plant-based fats, fruits, or vegetables on the Med diet.

    So to sum up here, once you get on the Mediterranean Diet, planning a meal can be pretty straightforward too.

    For example, do you love salads?

    Then head on out, pick up some of your favorite leafy greens and a variety of other colorful veggies. Toss out your conventional creamy dressings and opt for lots and lots of quality extra virgin olive oil and your favorite vinegar.

    Even better, add some feta cheese and kalamata olives to it, and there you go!

    Pair this with some grilled fish and wild rice, topped with more olive oil, and you have a delicious Mediterranean style meal.

    Want to see just how easy it is to cook Med-style meals?

    Well, there are 100s of recipe books you can checkout, but here are our 3 absolute favorites. All with tasty, quick and easy-to-make recipes.

    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.

     

    Quick Summary

    Why Do People Try The Mediterranean Diet?

    Unlike many other diets, there’s compelling and clear evidence that the Mediterranean Diet helps improve the health of those who follow it.

    Study after study continue to show its mighty health benefits run the full gamut.

    It may not only reduce all-cause mortality, but also cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, heart attacks and overall risk of cancer incidence and mortality. In addition, it might also help reduce risk of breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, and even neurodegenerative diseases such as cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 16

    Enjoying a long and fun life with family & friends is exactly what the Mediterranean diet is all about. by Umberto on Unsplash

    If that’s hasn’t got you chugging extra virgin olive oil like some kinda Italian St Patrick’s day, we’ve got more!

    So it turns out there is also some evidence that the Mediterranean Diet may be beneficial for depression, as well as prevention of strokes, stomach cancer, liver cancer, respiratory cancer and pancreatic cancer.

    But we must mention, more studies are needed on the Mediterranean Diet to conclusively suggest these additional links. 16

    A bonus of the Mediterranean Diet are values inherent to the Mediterranean region regarding sustainability, seasonality, and community. A more plant dominant meal pattern built around local and seasonal ingredients, shared in good company, helps to both reduce the environmental impact of the diet while also maintaining social connections and mental health. 5 16

    Watch UCLA explain the environmental benefits of the Mediterranean diet

    Quick Summary

    What Should You Be Careful Of On This Diet?

    1. Increasing your fiber intake too fast

    The Mediterranean Diet is packed with fiber, which is excellent for overall health. But, for those not accustomed to eating fiber and gas-forming foods, this could mean some discomfort when starting the diet.

    Instead of going from no fiber-rich food (like fruit) to bowls of it a day, ease into it.

    So instead of going from little fiber to attacking bowls of berries like the Cookie Monster on a serious fructose-binge, we suggest you start by gradually adapting habits towards a more high fiber, Mediterranean Diet pattern .

    This will give yourself (and your gut) a much easier transition.

    2. Interpreting the diet too widely

    While many diets give us firm cutoffs for what is or is not allowed, the Mediterranean Diet isn’t so rigid — which isn’t a bad thing! This is great for maintaining the diet as a lifestyle!

    It also requires that we know which parts of the diet can be adapted towards foods consumed outside of the Mediterranean, as opposed to which elements are crucial pieces of the puzzle.

    For example, let’s say you go out for sushi and order a big bowl of delicious seaweed salad (we like your style!). It’s important to realize that you are still supporting the Mediterranean Diet’s overall foundation, even though seaweed is not traditionally eaten on this diet.

    And in fact, we dare say you are actually further benefiting your health by increasing the diversity of your diet – which is a key tenet of the Med Diet! By contrast, if you decide to routinely swap red wine for sake, you may start seeing cracks in the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet.

    Sake…not really as healthy or Med-friendly as red wine. Choose wisely.

    Here’s how to interpret the Mediterranean Diet the right way

    • Extra virgin olive oil: a swap for other oils is likely to compromise Mediterranean Diet benefits. Of course, the addition of healthy fats from nuts, seeds, and fatty fish is excellent, but don’t nix the EVOO!​
    • Fruit and vegetables: these should be incorporated with a wide diversity and in large quantities. Bonus points if you manage to eat two servings of veggies with each meal and fruit for dessert.
    • Whole grains: preferred over refined grains​
    • Red Wine: Consumed in moderation. The preferred choice over all other types of alcohol. Limit to no more than 2 glasses per day for men or 1 for women, enjoy with meals, and avoid binge drinking.
    • Protein: Emphasize healthy and lean sources of protein, such as plant-based  sources like legumes and animal-based sources such as fatty fish, lean poultry, and eggs.  Side note: if you do eat eggs, try to keep intake to around 2-4 per eggs per week.
    • Red meat: this should be kept to a minimum. Think of red meat as a monthly food, something to be consumed on an occasion – e.g. big family dinner on a nice Sunday afternoon. This especially includes processed meats such as deli meats, ham, sausages, etc. If/when you eat meat, see if you can replicate parts of the Mediterranean experience by choosing pasture-raised, lean meats. Consider marinating meat first (use an antioxidant-rich marinade of red wine, vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, herbs, garlic, onions, etc.) before any high heat exposures to cut down on the production of cancer-causing compounds. Another method to reduce the production of these harmful compounds is through lower temperature or moist-heat cooking methods (e.g. stewing, braising, slow cooking, etc.)
    • Processed Foods: Keep the sweets, baked goods, ice cream, fast food, fried foods, and overly processed foods to a minimum – again let’s just remember these come under the monthly foods list.
    • Beverages: Drink water for hydration and try to swap soda and juice for water.
    • Dairy: Eat dairy in moderation; around 2-3 small servings per day. For a truly Mediterranean experience, opt for sheep and goat’s milk products from time to time, and go for yogurt and cheese instead of drinking milk.
       

    3. Ignoring the lifestyle habits of the Med

    If you’ve ever enjoyed visiting one of the many countries in the Mediterranean, you’ll be all too aware of just how different their lifestyle is.

    From long lunches to siestas to intense focus on local produce, they take life on in a very different manner.

    Long relaxing lunches with family & friends may be just as important as the food itself. by Umberto on Unsplash

    One lifestyle difference in particular worth noting is that people following a traditional Mediterranean Diet typically don’t snack very often and keep food intakes mostly to meals.

    Arguably just as importantly, their main meal of the day is usually eaten at lunchtime. 1

    These factors potentially could play a role in the benefits of the diet. If these lifestyle patterns align with your individual nutrition needs and can fit into your normal daily routine, it may be worthwhile to give these strategies a try!

    Quick Summary

    Summary & Verdict

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    2. Ostan R, Lanzarini C, Pini E, Scurti M, Vianello D, Bertarelli C, Fabbri C, Izzi M, Palmas G, Biondi F, Martucci M, Bellavista E, Salvioli S, Capri M, Franceschi C, Santoro A. Inflammaging and Cancer: A Challenge for the Mediterranean Diet. Nutrients. 2015; 7(4):2589-2621.

    3. Keys, A. (1995). Mediterranean diet and public health: Personal reflections. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(6): 1321S-1323S.

    4. Martínez-González, M. Á., Hershey, M. S., Zazpe, I., & Trichopoulou, A. Transferability of the mediterranean diet to non-mediterranean countries. what is and what is not the mediterranean diet. Nutrients, 2017;9(11): 1226

    5. Dernini, S., Berry, E. M., Serra-Majem, L., La Vecchia, C., Capone, R., Medina, F. X., Trichopoulou, A. Med diet 4.0: The mediterranean diet with four sustainable benefits. Public Health Nutrition, 2017; 20(7): 1322-1330.

    6. Nagpal, R., Shively, C. A., Register, T. C., Craft, S., & Yadav, H. Gut microbiome-mediterranean diet interactions in improving host health. F1000Research, 2019;8: 699.

    7. U.S. News and World Report. Mediterranean Diet. 2020; Accessed 4/8/2021

    8. D’Alessandro, A., Lampignano, L., & De Pergola, G. Mediterranean diet pyramid: A proposal for italian people. A systematic review of prospective studies to derive serving sizes. Nutrients, 2019;11(6): 1296

    9. Davis, C., Bryan, J., Hodgson, J., & Murphy, K. Definition of the mediterranean diet; a literature review. Nutrients, 2015;7(11): 9139-9153.

    10. Lukas Schwingshackl, Carolina Schwedhelm, Georg Hoffmann, Anna-Maria Lampousi, Sven Knüppel, Khalid Iqbal, Angela Bechthold, Sabrina Schlesinger, Heiner Boeing, Food groups and risk of all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017;105(6): 1462–1473

    11. Eisenhauer B, Natoli S, Liew G, Flood VM. Lutein and Zeaxanthin – Food Sources, Bioavailability  and Dietary Variety in Age-Related Macular Degeneration Protection. Nutrients. 2017;9(2): 120.

    12. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Augustin LS, et al. Effect of legumes as part of a low glycemic index diet on glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(21):1653-1660.

    13. 1. Craddock JC, Neale EP, Probst YC, Peoples GE. Algal supplementation of vegetarian eating patterns improves plasma and serum docosahexaenoic acid concentrations and omega-3 indices: A systematic literature review. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics : The Official Journal of the British Dietetic Association. 2017;30(6):693-699.

    14. Dairy | MyPlate. Myplate.gov 2021. Accessed March 18, 2021.

    15. Oldways. Mediterranean Diet. Accessed March 19, 2021.

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