Mediterranean Diet 101: Food List, Health Benefits & Meal Plan

2022-10-08 14:26:02 By : Mr. Anna LI

Everything you need to know about the Mediterranean diet, including health benefits, tips for sticking with the plan and more.

The Mediterranean diet is more popular today than ever before and for good reason. Not only has the diet been ranked as number one for the past five years in a row by the U.S. News & World Report, but researchers have been studying the diet for over half a century and continue to find tremendous benefits (more on that later). The real reason why the diet has gained such a following is that it's packed with high-quality, delicious foods that make healthy eating enjoyable and satisfying.

The approach focuses on an abundance of healthy, anti-inflammatory foods and doesn't cut out any major food groups. It’s no wonder that Ikaria, an island in Greece, and Sardinia, an island in Italy, have both been designated as two of the five Blue Zones of the world where people live the longest. Read on to learn more about how to follow the diet, including a full Mediterranean diet food list and a sample 7-day plan to kick start your healthy eating journey.

The Mediterranean way of eating is inspired by the traditional cuisines of Greece, Spain, Italy and France, among others. The approach is rich in produce, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats, supplying tons of antioxidants and heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Other superstar ingredients on the diet include fatty fish, nuts, seeds, aromatic herbs and spices.

Moderate amounts of dairy and eggs are enjoyed as well as poultry. Red meat is incorporated but in smaller amounts and comes from sources like beef and goat. Alcohol (specifically red wine) is included in moderation. What differentiates the Mediterranean diet from most is that it focuses on food quality and is more of a way of eating and lifestyle approach than a restrictive diet. You won't have to cut out any major food groups or favorites, but moderation is key with this plan.

Some of the most compelling evidence to support a Mediterranean diet led to a surge in popularity back in 2013: A team at the University of Barcelona studied more than 7,000 participants who drastically improved their heart health after adopting the diet. The scientific evidence of the diet’s effectiveness has piled up since then. Research continues to consistently show the many benefits of following a Mediterranean diet, from reducing the risk of heart disease to improving cognition. Some of the incredible benefits of the Mediterranean diet include that it can:

With so many benefits and delicious foods, there are few downsides to the Mediterranean diet and it's likely fine for most people to start but it is advisable to speak with your healthcare provider first. That being said, some potential risks can include that the diet may not provide enough calcium and iron as it doesn't have a huge emphasis on dairy products and red meat.

Some recipes and meals on the diet can be a bit time-consuming to prepare, and certain ingredients like seafood and high-quality olive oil can be costly. While the diet does allow wine, moderation is key as excessive alcohol use can not only have tragic consequences in the short term but can also lead to the development of several chronic diseases and other serious problems. Lastly, the diet doesn't have strict guidelines or portion sizes to follow which may be a deterrent for some.

A Mediterranean kitchen is packed with fresh produce, lean proteins, seafood and healthy fats. Here are some delicious ingredients that you might find useful when stocking your kitchen to add Mediterranean flavor to every meal.

Plant-based foods like vegetables and fruits are a strong foundation of the Mediterranean diet. They offer a hefty dose of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and more which makes them nutrient-dense choices since they contain a high amount of nutrients for a relatively low amount of calories. Plus, it's been well established in research that increased fruit and vegetable intake can prevent chronic disease and promote longevity. But only about 10% of Americans meet the recommended fruit and vegetable intake guidelines.

Aim for at least 5 servings a day of produce daily, or about 2 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables. A serving of vegetables is ½ cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of raw vegetables. Our experts recommend prioritizing non-starchy vegetables like dark leafy greens, bell peppers and broccoli among others. Starchy options like potatoes can be enjoyed in moderation on a Mediterranean diet. A serving of fruit is about 1 medium sized piece of whole fruit or 1/2 cup fresh, frozen or canned. Some of the best nutrient-dense fruits include berries, apples, peaches and pears.

This category of Mediterranean pantry staples are also nutrient-dense choices and can pack in a ton of fiber and plant-based protein. Aim to include at least one legume, nut or grain (or all three!) in each meal while following the diet.

Eating more whole grains, an emphasis in most Mediterranean meals, is associated with lower risk for chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Americans are eating more whole grains but not enough; research shows that less than 16% of total grain intake per day comes from whole grains. A minimum of three servings of whole grains per day is ideal, which includes a slice of whole grain bread or a half cup of cooked oatmeal, whole grain pasta or brown rice. Simple ways to include more whole grains in your diet starts with swapping white pasta and white rice for whole grain sides instead like quinoa, bulgar, wheat berries and more. Oats are also an easy whole grain addition to add to breakfast for a nutritious solution.

Beans, lentils, nuts and seeds provide protein, fiber, healthy fats, flavor and more to Mediterranean dishes. They are popular worldwide and have been consumed for at least 10,000 years. Regular consumption of legumes have been shown to improve cholesterol levels and blood pressure while also reducing inflammatory markers in the body. Beans and lentils can be a great protein source to add to grain bowls, veggie dishes and more. Nuts and seeds make for a great Mediterranean healthy snack, just look for options that are unsalted or low in sodium. Some of the healthiest nuts include walnuts, almonds and pistachios.

Herbs and spices are nature's flavor bombs and are some of the reasons why Mediterranean meals taste delicious and smell incredible. Not only do these foods add great flavor and dimension to meals, but they are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Utilizing more herbs and spices in your cooking can help you cut down the sodium in meals as well without sacrificing flavor.

High-quality olive oil from the Mediterranean is an important part of cooking in these regions. Look for single origin 100% olive oil and opt for ones sold in tinted or opaque bottles or cans to protect the oil from the light which can help it stay fresher longer. Always be sure to store oil in a cool and dry place. Vinegar is another important item to have in your Mediterranean pantry as it contains polyphenols and can help balance out dressings and many dishes.

Although cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean, they are typically consumed in small amounts and in moderation. They do provide a ton of nutrition including calcium, protein and more. But certain varieties can be high in saturated fat, so our experts recommend prioritizing low fat and non fat options when possible.

Fish tends to be the preferred healthy protein source for many Mediterranean populations, and they are typically grilled or baked instead of fried. Research suggests that regular fish consumption can reduce risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, Alzheimer's and several other chronic diseases. Many of the disease-fighting benefits of fish come from its heart healthy omega 3 fatty acids, which have been linked to benefitting cholesterol, triglycerides, inflammation and even blood clotting.

Meat is consumed in the Mediterranean and is full of bioavailable nutrients like vitamin B12 and complete protein, but most in the region enjoy it in small portions and prioritize leaner cuts. Meat can be high in saturated fat, which is known to increase levels of cholesterol in the blood, so moderation is key. Poultry is popular as it is a lean protein source, making options like chicken a staple on many Mediterranean menus.

The Mediterranean diet has a lot going for it, from its health benefits to its refreshing food choices, which makes it fairly easy to follow. These small but practical tips can help you stick to the diet in the long term too:

If you're heading to a Mediterranean restaurant, chances are they will have plenty of appropriate options for you to choose from. Here are a few tips for staying consistent with the eating pattern while dining out:

Our simple, nutritionist-approved one-week Mediterranean Diet plan is perfect for easing into the lifestyle and making it practical for you.

Looking for more recipes and meal plan inspiration? Check out Good Housekeeping's bestselling 28-day Mediterranean Diet meal plan that features step-by-step instructions, curated recipes, journaling and every tip you need to prep your kitchen for success.

As deputy nutrition director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, registered dietitian Stefani Sassos handles all nutrition-related content, evaluation and product testing for the brand. Stefani is dedicated to evidence-based diet and nutrition reporting. She takes the pulse of the latest nutrition research and trends, translating to readers what principles are science-backed and worth incorporating into a healthy lifestyle (and what fads are worth avoiding). Growing up in a Greek-American family, Mediterranean foods were (and still are!) at the forefront of all her family meals and traditions.

Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition- and fitness-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor's degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master's degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.

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