Last Updated on June 30, 2020

The Mediterranean Diet Explained

You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean Diet by now. Characterized by healthy fats, vegetables and a hint of cheese here and there, no other diet so clearly demonstrates the old adage of “everything in moderation.”

mediterranean dietUnlike other popular food trends, the Mediterranean Diet has been around for quite some time—and medical organizations from the Mayo Clinic to the American Heart Association recommend this diet for its positive effects on the cardiovascular system and body. One study suggested the diet had a positive effect on reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and death due to cardiovascular disease. Another study suggested weight-loss benefits by comparing the greater weight loss of obese participants on a restricted-calorie Mediterranean diet to those on a restricted-calorie, low-fat diet and a non-restricted calorie, low-carb diet.

So, what is the Mediterranean diet and why does it seem to have more staying power than some of the alternative options? Let’s take a quick look at what it is, and how you can transform your existing eating habits no matter where you live.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet focuses on creating balance by eating foods rich in key nutrients. The plan is abundant in fresh vegetables and fruit, fish and poultry, whole grains, legumes and olive oil.  While on this plan, you’ll mostly steer clear of red meat in favor of more plant-based options or leaner proteins like chicken and turkey. And in the spirit of moderation, the Mediterranean diet allows a daily glass of red wine.

Key benefits of eating Mediterranean

Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may provide a long list of health benefits; fighting inflammation, lowering risk of heart attack or stroke and reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the Mediterranean diet, when combined with physical activity and no smoking, could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 80% and Type 2 diabetes by 90%.

The diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit the heart, the brain and cholesterol levels, as well as olive oil, which is rich in antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. And, according to the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, the combination of these healthy fats and the fiber and antioxidants found in the diet may lower inflammation and delay tumor growth.

What to eat on the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet doesn’t come with too many limitations. But, you’ll want to focus more on fresh foods than anything that comes in a box or a bag. Stick to the outer perimeters of the grocery store and shopping should be a breeze. In any case, here are the basics for your next shopping list:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Legumes
  • Root Vegetables
  • Whole Grains
  • Fish and Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Dairy and red meat (may be eaten in moderation)

What to avoid

The “what you can’t eat” portion of the Mediterranean menu is pretty straightforward. There aren’t any surprises. Rather, the challenge lies in the fact that you need to be vigilant about reading labels and sticking to whole foods.

You’ll want to avoid sugars, which means:

  • Soda
  • Juices
  • Candy
  • Ice cream
  • Foods with added sugar—i.e. pasta sauces, canned fruit and condiments

Refined grains are also off-limits:

  • White bread
  • Pasta (whole wheat or brown rice pasta is fine)
  • Baked goods like cookies, cakes or crackers

You’ll also want to avoid trans-fats (found in margarine and other processed foods), as well as items like spam, hot dogs and lunchmeats and other processed meats. Refined oils like canola, soybean and cottonseed oil should also be avoided.

The Mediterranean diet should be easy to follow for most people, particularly if you’re used to cooking on a regular basis. If you eat out a lot or consume a lot of processed items (canned soups, frozen meals, boxed items like Rice a Roni or Hamburger Helper), you’ll need to start reading labels and looking for items with fewer ingredients.

So, what’s the verdict on eating like a Greek?

We say, go for it. The Mediterranean Diet is the perfect example of balance, and it has the unique advantage of being an easy-to-follow way of getting the nutrients your body needs. The fact that the diet promotes local produce, whole grains, fish, eggs and healthy fatsmakes it a fairly fool-proof plan. And, we like that there’s solid scientific evidence supporting its benefits.

The Mediterranean diet isn’t a crash diet or a quick-fix weight loss program. Instead, the focus is on health. By following the plan, you’ll switch out empty calories for nutritionally dense foods that work to lower LDL cholesterol, fight free radical damage and keep you full throughout the day.

Cory is a veteran health industry writer and content creator. His work has been featured in major publications such as MyFitnessPal, Healthy Living, and Low Carb Fanatics. His health industry writing career spans over nearly two decades.

In his free time, Cory enjoys snowboarding, fictional writing, and online chess.