Imagine a table filled with freshly caught fish topped with bright green herbs, platters of vibrantly colored vegetables, and a simple bulgur salad lightly tossed in a fragrant citrus and olive oil dressing. Sitting around that table are your closest family and friends, breathing in the sea air and lingering over the meal with great conversation and lots of laughter. Sounds like vacation, right? For those living near the Mediterranean Sea, this is just a typical evening.
The Mediterranean diet has been studied intensively over the last 60 years since observations that the populations living in seven countries surrounding the Mediterranean had better cardiovascular health than the U.S. population. Hundreds of studies show a Mediterranean-style diet offers health benefits, from cardiovascular, brain, and eye health to weight management. It’s been associated with lower risk of some cancers and emerging research has even connected it to improved gut health. The Mediterranean diet continually ranks high on lists of the best heart health or weight loss diets.
What makes the Mediterranean diet different than fad diets is that it’s not a quick fix. No foods are completely off limits, but there is an emphasis on plant foods, fish, poultry, whole grains, and plant-based fats, as well as eating more whole foods and fewer processed items. It’s not only a way of eating but a lifestyle, meaning it’s not just about diet, but also about staying active and being social. While most of us don’t have a bright blue sea in our backyard (or maybe even fresh fish available at our local grocery store), there are many parts of the Mediterranean lifestyle that are possible to adopt, no matter where you live.
- Make plants the star of your plate. You’ve heard it before — eat more vegetables! It’s true, fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods like legumes and whole grains are a mainstay in the Mediterranean diet. These foods give you a lot of nutritional bang for your calorie buck.
- Eat fish twice per week. If fresh options in your area are, well, a little fishy, don’t shy away from frozen or canned. Learn sustainable options by downloading this app/guide.
- Pick plant proteins often. While red meat isn’t completely off the table, choosing plant proteins like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, and nuts more often is common practice in the Mediterranean diet, and associated with many health benefits.
- Cook with plant oils. Replacing butter with olive or canola oil in cooking increases the good-for-you fat in your diet while also reducing the less healthy saturated fat. Flavor your dishes with other sources of healthy fat like avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds.
- Flavor with herbs and spices to boost flavor and cut out excess salt.
- Sip on water throughout the day. Skip the sugary beverages and hydrate with still or sparkling (whichever you fancy!). Spice up your beverages with a squeeze of citrus, fresh fruit, herbs, or cucumber.
- Switch to whole grains. Ancient grains like bulgur, farro, and teff are a traditional part of the Mediterranean diet. But, even just switching to whole wheat pasta or bread can make a difference.
- Enjoy some dairy. A bowl of Greek yogurt with fresh fruit for breakfast, a dollop of tzatziki with vegetables, or a sprinkle of cheese on a salad are common practices for those following the Mediterranean diet. Yes, sometimes that includes full-fat dairy (gasp!). Savoring small amounts can even be good for you.
- Don’t deprive yourself. Enjoying the occasional red meat, sweets, or other treats are part of the Mediterranean lifestyle; they just don’t make a regular appearance. Dessert is more often fresh fruit than cookies and cakes.
- Chow down with your loved ones. Eating with others (not while distracted by a screen — put that phone away!) may help you eat less overall and increase meal satisfaction. It’s also a great way to destress — another important part of staying healthy.
- Move often in ways that you enjoy. Regular exercise is a key part of the Mediterranean way of life. Staying active should be fun (it’s the only way you’ll stick to it). So, whether it’s dancing, jogging, swimming, hiking, or walking your dog, choose activities you enjoy and it won’t seem like a chore to get moving.
For those of legal drinking age, toasting with the occasional glass of wine is considered to be a healthy part of the the Mediterranean diet, but an optional one. Cheers to a table filled with an abundance of fresh food and surrounded by your loved ones.