The Mediterranean diet is a flexible diet that emphasizes healthy plant-based foods, limits highly processed foods like sweets and processed meats, and embraces eating for pleasure. Hundreds of studies point to the health benefits of this diet. In honor of International Mediterranean Diet Month, here are the best things to eat on this high-level diet.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Before we delve into the foods eaten in the Mediterranean region, let’s discuss why these eating habits are so healthy. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may protect against strokes and heart attacks, memory loss, type 2 diabetes and depression. It is also associated with a longer lifespan. In addition to all of these benefits, the Mediterranean diet is associated with a healthier body weight.
The reason the Mediterranean diet is so helpful is its focus on plant-based foods. These foods contain fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients that underlie most health problems. In short, compounds in plants limit inflammation, promote a diverse and healthy gut environment, and counteract free radical damage that contributes to oxidative stress.
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Here are some of the all-star staples of the Mediterranean diet that are credited with these impressive health benefits:
Extra virgin olive oil, EVOO, is a pillar of the Mediterranean diet. EVOO is rich in monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, antioxidants that protect against free radical damage. An imbalance of antioxidants to free radicals leads to oxidative stress and promotes various diseases. But a diet high in antioxidants, such as those found in EVOO and other plant-based foods, can protect against this occurrence. The compounds in EVOO also have a positive effect on gut health.
To eat like the Mediterranean, make EVOO your favorite cooking oil. Cook your vegetables in it and use it as a condiment for salads, pasta and bread. To preserve EVOO’s health properties, purchase oil within the expiration date and store in a cool, dark place. Make sure your EVOO is in a dark bottle as light can affect quality.
fruits and vegetables
You’re probably familiar with the fact that fruits and vegetables are nutritional superstars, which is why these gems are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. At mealtime, Mediterranean eaters fill most of the plate with produce. In the Mediterranean region, fruit is eaten a few times a day and can be included in desserts (think berries marinated in balsamic vinegar or poached pears with yogurt sauce).
When it comes to veggies, forget about flimsy salads or puny portions on the edge of your plate. These foods are the focus of luxurious salads and vegetarian pasta dishes, grain salads, soups and stews.
Fish is one of the best sources of animal protein in the Mediterranean diet and is eaten at least twice a week, following recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association. According to a landmark study, this amount reduces your chance of dying from heart disease by 36%. Another study found that people who eat fish often live an average of 2.2 years longer than those who don’t. Also, evidence suggests that fish eaters have a lower risk of depression as they age, as well as better brain health and thinking ability.
If fish isn’t a regular part of your diet, eat it with familiar foods. For example, add smoked salmon to scrambled eggs, make fish tacos, and add shrimp to your favorite stir-fry.
Nuts are a staple of the Mediterranean diet, and each variety has unique superpowers. For example, among nuts, almonds are the richest in vitamin E, Brazil nuts are the richest in magnesium, and walnuts are the only nut that is an excellent source of the plant-based omega-3 ALA. These vegetable fats are related to the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and offer powerful anti-inflammatory protection. A 2022 review study found that plant-based ALAs may lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. Study authors also report promising evidence that ALAs may counteract age-related cognitive impairment and protect against type 2 diabetes. And they say benefits are associated with about ½ ounce of walnuts per day, even though the Mediterranean diet calls for up to two 1-ounce servings of different nuts daily. You can easily achieve this amount by adding nuts and seeds (like chia, pumpkin, and sesame seeds) to stir-fries, baked goods, fruit dishes, and trail mixes.
Legumes include beans, lentils, and chickpeas, and they’re packed with health-promoting nutrients. Eating these foods often promotes better heart health, gut health, longevity, and a significantly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
In keeping with Mediterranean tradition, try eating legumes instead of meat for some meals. One strategy is to use them in savory dishes that usually call for meat, like burgers, chili, and tomato sauce. The Mediterranean diet eats legumes at least twice a week, but it’s easy to incorporate them into any meal or snack. Toss kidney beans in a smoothie or add them to sautéed veggies, snack on roasted chickpeas or hummus, and add beans to soups, salads, grainy side dishes, and pasta.
Typically, one to two servings of whole grains are eaten with every Mediterranean meal. There is evidence that eating whole grains as part of the Mediterranean diet can reduce your risk of heart disease and death from heart disease, as well as your risk of type 2 diabetes. According to a 2022 study, the fiber in whole grains is particularly protective against disease-causing inflammation. Note, however, that portion sizes may be smaller than the standard American diet. In 2019, Italian scientists proposed an updated Mediterranean food pyramid that calls for 90 to 180 grams of whole grain carbohydrates per day, which means one to two cups of whole grains at each meal. The rest of the plate is filled with vegetables and other plant-based foods like nuts and legumes.
Pasta deserves special attention because it is part of the Mediterranean cuisine, but also a refined grain. Overall, refined grains are eaten less frequently in the Mediterranean diet, but when pasta is eaten, it is enjoyed with other Mediterranean diet staples such as vegetables, legumes and EVOO. Or it can be added to a soup or eaten with a serving of fish or shellfish. Also, portions may be smaller than you are used to. However, when eaten this way with healthy foods, pasta can help you get more protective nutrients into your diet.
4 easy ways to start the Mediterranean diet
All you need to start the Mediterranean diet is a well-stocked kitchen and a willingness to try. Here are some other pointers to adopting this lifestyle:
● Try to fill up 75% of your plate with plant-based foods. The rest of your plate can include fish, poultry or eggs if desired.
● Reduce consumption of red meat, highly processed foods and sweets. These include ultra-processed refined grains.
● Take time to sit and enjoy your meals.
● Don’t worry about Mediterranean foods. The plant-based focus of Mediterranean cuisine can be extended to other cuisines. Start with the plant-based foods your family likes and go from there.