You've successfully subscribed to OliveOil.com
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to OliveOil.com
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
The Mediterranean Diet: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

The Mediterranean Diet: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

Stephanie Eckelkamp

People living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and France tend to be healthier and live longer than most Americans.

The common factor? Much of their vitality is thought to come from an eating pattern that emphasizes unprocessed plant foods (veggies, fruits, legumes, whole grains, etc), good fats, and lean proteins, while limiting things like red meat, sugar, and processed junk. In other words, a Mediterranean diet.

Dietitians and other health experts are a little obsessed with the Mediterranean diet, which consistently snags the #1 spot on U.S. News & World Report's list of best diets. Part of the reason it’s so popular: It's more of a basic eating pattern than it is a structured diet—meaning, there aren’t rigid “yes” and “no” food lists, which makes it much easier to follow. In fact, even if you’re vegan or gluten-free, there are still plenty of foods that allow you to eat a Mediterranean-style diet.

The Mediterranean diet has also been robustly studied for its ability to reduce risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, and some experts believe its abundance of healthy fats (particularly from olive oil) is what gives it an edge.

Here, discover the science-backed health benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet, what foods to eat, and a sample meal plan.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

There’s no “one” Mediterranean diet—after all, there are subtle nuances in the way Italians vs Greeks vs Spaniards eat. So what we call the Mediterranean diet today is more of a set of overarching principles that unites the various traditional diets of the Mediterranean basin region.

One overarching principle: Flexibility. Unlike some diets, like the Paleo or Keto diet, the Mediterranean diet does not ask you to cut out entire food groups like legumes or grains, or to eat less than 50 grams of carbs per day. Instead, it’s a much more sustainable approach to eating that encourages a variety of nutrient-rich foods across every food group. Meaning, in addition to things like fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, and olive oil (especially extra virgin olive oil), you can also have some red wine and pasta.

But, while flexible, certain foods are emphasized more strongly than others on a Mediterranean-style diet, as you'll see below.

What should you eat on a Mediterranean diet?

Oldways, a non-profit dedicated to improving public health, partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 1990s to create the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid—and it still holds up today. Starting at the base of the pyramid (and working your way up) you’ll find:

  • Base of pyramid: Core foods to enjoy every day include vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, herbs, spices, nuts, and healthy fats such as olive oil
  • Second level: Fish and seafood are typically eaten at least twice a week
  • Third level: Moderate portions of dairy products (especially fermented dairy products like yogurt and traditional cheeses), eggs, and occasional poultry
  • Top of pyramid: Infrequent servings of red meats, sweets, and highly processed foods

Red wine is encouraged in moderation (moderation = up to 1 glass a day for women, 2 glasses a day for men), but it's definitely not required to reap the health benefits. Coffee and tea are also perfectly acceptable additions to your Mediterranean diet.

But the Mediterranean diet actually isn’t just about food. With many populations of the Mediterranean region, there’s a large emphasis on fostering social connections and being active. So try to set aside the technology and enjoy your dinner with family or friends, even if it’s via Zoom now and then; and get some physical activity every day, even if it’s just for a walk.

Mediterranean diet food list.

The Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid gives you some rough guidelines on what to eat on a Mediterranean diet, but here’s a more detailed look at what you can include on this type of diet. Remember, this is just a starting point!

  • Olive oil: Yes, we know olive oil isn’t an entire food group. But it’s such a beloved, nutrient-rich staple of the Mediterranean region (and so chock full of health benefits) that many would argue that you just can’t follow a Mediterranean diet without a daily pour of this liquid gold.
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, broccoli rabe, spinach, arugula, kale, tomatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bell peppers, mushrooms, celery, fennel, cabbage, leeks, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, squash, onions, garlic, cucumber, and literally any other veggie you want to eat.
  • Fruits: Lemons, oranges, grapefruit, berries, figs, grapes, melons, peaches, plums, apples, pears, pomegranate, apricots, olives,  avocados, and pretty much any fruit!
  • Nuts + seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pili nuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, and more.
  • Grains: Brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, oats, polenta, bulgur, farro, millet, whole wheat or whole grain bread, pasta, and other whole or minimally processed grains.
  • Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, peas, beans (cannellini beans, red beans, fava beans, lima beans, pinto beans, etc).
  • Dairy: Parmesan cheese, Romano cheese, cottage cheese, regular or Greek yogurt, kefir, feta cheese, ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and other minimally processed cheeses.
  • Eggs: Chicken eggs, duck eggs.
  • Seafood: Salmon, sardines, anchovies, tuna, trout, mackerel, halibut, sea bass, shrimp, oysters, mussels, clams, crab, etc. (Concerned about sustainability? Check your seafood’s rating on Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.)
  • Meats: Chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, beef, etc. Limit red meat to a few times per month.
  • Herbs, spices, + flavorings: Balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, honey, salt, pepper, cayenne, turmeric, ginger, oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin, dill, parsley, paprika, bay leaves, basil, sage, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cocoa, etc.
  • Beverages: Water, coffee, black tea, green tea, herbal teas, and red wine in moderation.

The benefits: Why is a Mediterranean Diet so healthy?

Now you know what to eat, but why should you eat it? Let us count the reasons...

The Mediterranean diet is by far the most extensively studied diet, with ample scientific research supporting its ability to reduce risk of various chronic diseases and improve overall quality of life. Here are some of the most exciting benefits of the Mediterranean diet to date:

1. It’s seriously heart-healthy.

The positive impact of olive oil on cardiovascular disease and heart health has been well studied. In the landmark PREDIMED study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which included over 7,000 adults in Spain, the participants consuming a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either mixed nuts or extra virgin olive oil (4+ tablespoons per day) had a significantly lower risk of experiencing a major cardiovascular event compared to those eating a low-fat control diet.

The risk of combined stroke, heart attack, and death from heart disease was 28% lower in the Mediterranean diet with nuts group and 31% lower in the Mediterranean diet and olive oil group. Both nuts and olive oil are rich in polyphenol antioxidants and phytosterols, compounds that play a role in lowering LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and inflammation.

The Mediterranean diet is even endorsed by the American Heart Association, as “this style of eating can play a big role in preventing heart disease and stroke and reducing risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.”

2. It may aid in weight loss.

With its emphasis on fiber-rich plant foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats—all of which are incredibly filling and packed with nutrition—it’s not surprising the Mediterranean diet has been associated with weight loss. In a two-year study, people following a Mediterranean-style diet lost almost twice as much weight as people following a low-fat diet. Those on the Mediterranean diet also ended up consuming more fiber and had the highest ratio of healthy monounsaturated fat (the kind found in olive oil) to saturated fat.

3. It could reduce Type 2 diabetes risk.

In one systematic review of meta-analyses and randomized controlled trials comparing the Mediterranean diet with a control diet for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, researchers found that the Mediterranean diet was associated with better glycemic control (the body’s ability to maintain stable blood sugar) than control diets, including a low-fat diet.

In addition to blood sugar-stabilizing fiber and healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet is loaded with polyphenols (beneficial plant compounds that function as antioxidants) from olive oil, veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Researchers believe this high polyphenol intake can reduce diabetes risk by improving insulin sensitivity (i.e. reversing insulin resistance).

4. It may help treat depression.

In 2019 study, researchers found that young adults with depression who followed a Mediterranean-style diet (containing vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, lean meats, tofu, beans, and about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day) reduced depression symptoms to a “normal” range after 3 weeks, along with stress and anxiety. This supports findings from the SMILES Trial, which showed that a 12-week Mediterranean diet intervention resulted in 30% of participants going into remission for their depression.

5. It may lower risk of cancer.

A 2017 research review found that people living in the Mediterranean region had lower rates of cancer than the United States and Northern Europe, which the study authors credit to eating a Mediterranean diet, with its abundant vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods full of beneficial polyphenol antioxidant compounds. Research has also found that extra virgin olive oil is absolutely brimming with bioactive compounds that have proven anti-cancer properties such as hydroxytyrosol, oleocanthal, oleic acid, phytosterols, and squalene.

6. It helps you stay mentally sharp.

A systemic review of studies found that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, and a reduced risk of progressing from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s.

In 2019, the WHO even recommended following a Mediterranean diet to reduce risk of dementia, writing that “The Mediterranean diet is the most extensively studied dietary approach, in general as well as in relation to cognitive function.”

7. It may extend your lifespan.

In addition to curbing your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke (as mentioned above), the Mediterranean diet may boost longevity in another way. One study found that greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with longer telomeres—the end caps of your chromosomes that help protect against DNA damage. Telomere length has long been a biomarker for aging: Short, damaged telomeres are often associated with lower life expectancy and chronic disease, while longer telomeres are associated with health and longevity.

A Simple One-Day Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan.

Need some inspiration to get started? Here’s an example of what you could eat in a day on the Mediterranean diet. Remember, if you have a specific goal in mind such as weight loss, you'll still have to be somewhat mindful of portion sizes.

  • Breakfast: Whole milk Greek yogurt with berries, walnuts, and a drizzle of honey.
  • Lunch: Loaded grain bowl: Wild rice, chickpeas or beans, a variety of fresh or roasted veggies, fresh herbs, and avocado slices. Top with a fried egg for extra protein. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh lemon juice.
  • Snack: Hummus with sliced carrots and bell peppers, or apple slices with almond butter.
  • Dinner: Pan-fried salmon, quinoa, and a Greek salad made with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, kalamata olives, feta, and olive oil and balsamic (or your favorite vinaigrette).
  • Dessert: A few squares of dark chocolate, or a slice of this gluten-free lemon olive oil cake.

Bottom line.

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy way of eating for just about everybody. It consistency ranks #1 among popular diets, and its emphasis on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish, olive oil, herbs, spices, and more provides you with a wide range of nutrients that support heart health, brain health, mental health, metabolic health, and even longevity. The best part:  There's even room for a little wine, pasta, and dark chocolate.