What is the Mediterranean Diet?

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

Eat this, don’t eat that.

One minute, the villain is fat, then it’s carbs, then sugar, and so on. Fad diets and food trends come and go, but the merits of a few diets have stood the test of time, and the Mediterranean diet is one of those diets.

What is the Mediterranean diet? This eating plan hails from the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It provides a window into how the people of this region ate in the late 1950s and 1960s, a difficult economic time for the area.

“I’m a fan of the Mediterranean diet because it’s focused on whole foods — it doesn’t allow for a lot of processed foods – and it incorporates a lot of healthy fish, which means you’re getting healthy fats”, says Paige Benté M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. “It [the diet] promotes a lot of fruits and vegetables and then other healthy fats from things like nuts and avocado. And I’m a fan of diets that allow for small servings of wine and dark chocolate,” she adds.

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Mediterranean Diet Pyramid Food List

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is organized by food and frequency: foods that you should eat at every meal, every day, weekly, and in moderation. Much like the old USDA pyramid, it continues to evolve as the body of science around nutrition and food grows.

Mediterranean Diet

1. Foods to Eat at Every Meal

These foods, found at the base of the pyramid, are encouraged to be enjoyed every meal, every day while balancing overall energy intake. Servings per meal may vary.

  • Grains: Examples include bread, rice, pasta, millet, couscous, etc. Whole grains are recommended over refined grains.
  • Fruits: Fruit should be chosen as the dessert the majority of the time. Examples include grapes, watermelon, apples, and oranges.
  • Vegetables: At a minimum, vegetables should be served at lunch and dinner. The guidelines also stipulate that at least one of the servings should be raw, and to aim for a variety of textures and colors to provide a range of antioxidant-like compounds and other nutrients.
  • Olive Oil: This is what many people think of when they think of the Mediterranean Diet — and for a good reason. Olive oil is at the center of the diet and is recommended as the primary source of fat; it contains vitamins K and E, as well as healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAS).

Mediterranean Diet

2. Foods to Eat Every Day

  • Dairy: The Mediterranean Diet recommends low-fat dairy, typically in the form of yogurt and cheese.
  • Spices, Herbs, Garlic, and Onion
  • Olives, Nuts, Seeds: Walnuts, pistachios, chia seeds, and olives are all examples of this group.

3. Foods to Eat Weekly

  • Fish, Seafood, White Meat: Two servings of white meat and a minimum of two servings of fish and seafood per week is recommended.
  • Eggs
  • Legumes: When legumes are paired with a whole grain, you will get a complete protein source. That’s a bonus when you are trying to cut down on animal-based proteins, or if you’re a vegetarian.
  • Red Meat: Portion controlled, less processed, lean red meats.

4. Foods to Eat Occasionally

  • Wine and Other Fermented Beverages: Suggested amounts — one glass of wine per day for women, and for men, two glass per day.
  • Treats: Cake, cookies, candy, and other treats aren’t banned; just make sure to enjoy them very infrequently.

 

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Sample Mediterranean Diet Plan

BreakfastScrambled Eggs and Raspberry Oatmeal

  • 2 eggs, scrambled
  • ½ cup oatmeal, cooked
  • 2 tsp. olive oil

Snack: 1 small apple + 8 walnut halves

Lunch: Greek Lentil Salad

  • 1 cup leafy greens
  • 1 cup chopped tomato, cucumbers, and onions
  • 4 oz. chicken breast, grilled
  • ½ cup lentils, cooked
  • 2 Tbsp. balsamic dressing

Snack: 1 cup blueberries + ½-¾ cup 2% plain Greek yogurt, unsweetened

DinnerSalmon and Rice with Sautéed Vegetables

  • 1 cup summer squash/broccoli
  • 1 cup sliced bell peppers, raw
  • 4 oz. salmon, grilled
  • ½ cup brown rice, cooked
  • 2 tsp. olive oil

Mediterranean Lifestyle and Culture

In addition to healthy foods, lifestyle, and cultural elements are also part of the pyramid, specifically: activity, rest, socialization, cooking, seasonality, and moderation. These form the foundation of the diet’s pyramid.

Activity and Rest: The Mediterranean lifestyle stresses being active outside; at least 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity to help support a healthy weight, as well as the necessary rest to recover.

Socialization and Cooking: It’s believed that cooking with family and friends, and enjoying a friendly, lively meal with others adds social and cultural value by creating a sense of community.

Seasonality: The foods list emphasizes fresh, seasonal, whole foods to support and preserve the local environment.

Moderation: Eating food in healthy portion sizes.

 

Losing Weight on the Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet

It may seem counter-intuitive to previous ways of thinking (remember villainizing specific nutrients?), but this diet — which includes high-fat foods like olive oil, avocados, and sometimes cheese — might support healthy weight management with controlled portions and when coupled with regular exercise.

In a 2018 Italian study, monitored more than 30,000 participants consumption of 11 food items:

High intake of six typical Mediterranean foods

  • pasta
  • typical Mediterranean vegetables (raw tomatoes, non-brassica leafy vegetables, courgettes, aubergines, peppers, onion and garlic)
  • fruit
  • pulses (beans, lentils and seeds)
  • olive oil
  • fish

Low intake of four “non-Mediterranean foods

  • soft drinks
  • butter
  • red and processed meat
  • potatoes

Researchers concluded: “We have found that following a Mediterranean diet—as measured by an instrument designed to capture key aspects of the traditional Italian Mediterranean diet—is associated with reduced weight gain and reduced increase in waist circumference. Intervention studies are needed to confirm the protective effects of this dietary pattern against weight gain.”

The Mediterranean lifestyle and dietary patterns are considered by many to be among the healthiest in the world and may provide health benefits for its followers.

The Bottom Line

One of the keys to supporting your health and maintaining a healthy weight is to find a pattern of eating that is satisfying and fits in with your lifestyle.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole foods such as fruits, veggies, meats, fish, and dairy while allowing occasional indulgences like wine and sweets.

In addition to food, the diet encourages lifestyle components like activity, rest, socialization, cooking, seasonality, and moderation.

Followers of the Mediterranean diet may find that in addition to the association with overall health benefits, there may also be a potential association with weight loss, especially when portion sizes are monitored (and with the addition of an exercise program).

Kelly Plowe

About

Kelly is a Philadelphia-based licensed dietitian nutritionist, gut health educator and FODMAP diet specialist. Follow her on Twitter.

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