Are you ready to learn everything you need to know about how to begin eating the Mediterranean way? This dietary pattern has been one of the most popular heart-healthy diets for several years in a row but has been studied for decades. In this article, I’ll fill you in on the fantastic health benefits it can provide, along with tips on how you can begin eating the Mediterranean way too.
Now let’s dive into the Mediterranean diet for beginners!
Check out this full list of pantry staples on the Mediterranean diet.
And don’t forget to download the free Mediterranean diet grocery list below!
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Table of Contents
What is a Mediterranean Diet?
A Mediterranean-style diet is inspired by countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This includes southern Spain, Crete, Lebanon, Turkey, Italy, and the many other countries.
It began in 1958 when an American researcher named Ancel Keys began his Seven Countries Study.
This study was the first of its kind to link diet and culture with cardiovascular disease risk. The seven countries that were studied included:
- The United States
- Former Yugoslavia
After studying multiple dietary and lifestyle factors, what researchers found was astonishing!
The dietary patterns of participants living on the island of Crete, Italy, and Greece were among the healthiest populations with the lowest rates of heart disease. These findings lead researchers to develop what is known now as the Mediterranean diet.
Today, the Mediterranean diet is considered the gold standard of dietary eating patterns. You may also people refer to this diet as a Way of Eating (WOE) lifestyle.
It focuses on an overall eating pattern, not how many calories, protein, or carbs you are consuming. There are no strict calculating or overwhelming macros to count.
This makes it flexible and easy to follow for most individuals. In fact, U.S. News and World Report have named the Mediterranean diet one of the top heart-healthy diets for the past several years!
Another important thing to know is that there is no one single Mediterranean diet. Many different countries surround the Mediterranean Sea, each with their own cultural food preferences. However, they all follow similar principles.
Other Key Studies
Like the Seven Country Study, I cannot neglect to mention other pivotal studies regarding the Mediterranean diet. The first is the largest dietary intervention study, Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea, or PREDIMED study. And also the secondary prevention trial, the Lyon Diet Heart Study.
These studies found similar results when it comes to the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Participants at cardiovascular risk ultimately had a lower incidence of heart attack, stroke, and death when following a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern.
In addition, those with a history of heart attack before beginning the Lyon Diet Heart Study found that the Mediterranean diet had a cardio-protective effect for up to 4 years while following the diet.
Benefits of Following a Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is not one of the world’s most popular and healthiest diets for no reason. There is an abundance of scientific evidence examining the health benefits of this flexible dietary pattern. These benefits include but are not limited to:
- Cardiovascular health
- Bone and joint conditions
- Overall quality of life and healthy aging
Let’s delve a little deeper into each of these benefits.
Improved Cardiovascular Health
Since the Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods, your heart and vascular system can function so much better.
There are no highly processed foods or large amounts of saturated fats that lead to atherosclerosis, which is responsible for the development of many cardiovascular diseases.
Some of the many cardiovascular benefits of this dietary pattern include:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Decreasing lipids (total and LDL-cholesterol)
- Improving endothelial function
- Lowering body weight and waist circumference
- Increasing the bioavailability of nitric oxide (NO)
- Providing essential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals
Manage Blood Sugars
A Mediterranean diet is not necessarily a low-carbohydrate diet. Though, it can be a way to decrease one’s risk of developing diabetes by managing metabolic syndrome, which is a risk factor for diabetes.
One study on the Mediterranean diet versus the ketogenic diet shows that individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus who followed the Med diet had similar decreases in HgbA1c levels after 12 weeks compared to the keto diet group. The Mediterranean group also had a higher intake of fiber, and other specific nutrients, and reported better sustainability of the diet compared to the keto group.
Better Bone and Joint Health
Following a Mediterranean diet may also improve bone and joint health by maintaining bone mineral density. Especially in the older population, where getting adequate nutrients (including calcium and vitamin D) may be difficult.
One preliminary study on 418 subjects revealed that individuals following a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of developing osteoporosis.
Similar results were observed in another study of peri- and post-menopausal women. Those following the Mediterranean diet had a higher daily calcium intake which may be beneficial to osteoporosis prevention.
Research is promising in this area however, with each study there are limitations, and more research is needed.
Overall Better Health and Aging
Lifelong adherence to this healthy dietary pattern can also help you age well, preventing many age-related conditions and complications.
Age-related decline in muscular skeletal mass, or sarcopenia, is one of these conditions. A decline in this area leads to weakness and debility over time.
Other ways in which a Mediterranean diet can help you in the aging process include:
- Preserving sexual function
- Maintaining healthy cardiovascular function
- Keeping a healthy immune system
- Reducing inflammation which can lead to chronic diseases
A Mediterranean-style dietary pattern may also protect against age-related cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s dementia.
What Does the Mediterranean Diet Consist Of?
I mentioned earlier that Mediterranean cultures follow similar principles. Their dietary habits include:
- Plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Minimally processed whole grain breads, pasta, rice, and other grains
- Olive oil as a primary fat source
- Legumes, nuts, and seeds in moderate amounts
- Dairy which is preferred to be lower fat
- Eggs in low amounts
- Fish and seafood more often than red meat and other processed meats
- Poultry in low amounts and red meat sparingly
- Sweets also sparingly, 1-2 times per week
Let’s go over these Mediterranean diet food groups in more detail.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables should be included in all main meals, with at least 2 servings of vegetables at lunch and dinner. The Mediterranean Diet Foundation recommends eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. One serving is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw.
The high amount of nutrients, including antioxidants, fiber, and the many phytonutrients in these food groups contribute to the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
Alternate between cooked and raw fruits and vegetables to get more variety and bioavailability of the nutrients they provide.
Additionally, those practicing a Mediterranean way of life tend to choose fruit over sweets as a healthy, daily dessert option.
A special note about potatoes: White potatoes are a vegetable; they are eaten only 3 times per week or less. This is because studies are very mixed about the health benefits of potato consumption. Some show that potatoes contribute to weight gain while others do not.
Overall, they are allowed on the Mediterranean diet. After all, potatoes are high in essential nutrients like potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and fiber.
Just be mindful of how much you consume and how they are prepared. Go for unprocessed forms that are baked, steamed, boiled, or mashed with little saturated fat or salty additives.
Grains, Pasta, Rice, and More
Bread, pasta, rice, and other grains and cereals are a large part of the Mediterranean way of living as well. They are eaten at every meal, preferably in whole grain form. This means that the grains are minimally processed in their whole form.
Serving sizes will vary depending on the food. One serving is 1 ounce of cereal, 1 slice of bread, or 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta.
Some examples of whole grains are 100% whole grain oats, whole grain wheat bread, quinoa, barley, popcorn, white or brown rice, and even cereals that are listed with whole grain as the first ingredient.
Recipes to try: Mediterranean Quinoa Salad or Mediterranean Diet Oatmeal (With Bonus Oats Review)
Olive oil is used liberally in the Mediterranean and is the main fat source in this diet. The amount consumed in the PREDIMED study was up to 4 tablespoons per day which resulted in cardiovascular benefits.
Olive oil is very low in saturated fats, but high in other health-promoting components such as lignans, oleuropein, and tyrosol among others.
These powerful polyphenols are what give olive oil the ability to reduce one’s risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
Studies show that the polyphenols in olive oil help your body remove excess cholesterol from arteries and keep blood vessels open.
Legumes, Nuts, and Seeds
Legumes and beans should be eaten up to twice per week (in 1/2 cup servings), while nuts and seeds can be eaten daily.
The PREDIMED study findings attest to the cardiovascular health benefits of eating more nuts. The specific nuts used in the PREDIMED study were walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts.
The daily recommendation is to eat 1-2 servings of nuts each day. A serving size of nuts is around 30 grams. This is equivalent to 20 almonds, 10 whole walnuts, or 20 hazelnuts. However, feel free to consume a mixture of different nuts each day.
Peanut butter and other kinds of nut butter are also included in this group and can be eaten in 2-tablespoon servings daily.
You can also eat dairy on a Mediterranean diet. Choices include both full-fat and low-fat dairy items. Fermented dairy like yogurt is particularly beneficial in replacing the “good” microbiota in our gut and is a staple in the Mediterranean.
The original PREDIMED study recommends two servings of dairy per day. Although a later study on the Mediterranean diet that includes more dairy (3-4 servings per day) shows that a higher dairy intake may improve cardiovascular health in those at risk for heart disease.
For milk and yogurt, low -fat milk and Greek yogurt are recommended over full-fat versions.
Cheese is also allowed with a preference for one serving per day of either hard, semi-soft, or soft cheeses (like ricotta and cottage cheese).
Serving sizes are as follows: 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 ounce of cheese, 1/2 cup of ricotta or cottage cheese.
Eggs can be eaten in moderate amounts in a Mediterranean diet, with up to 4 eggs per week.
They are a complete source of protein that provides healthy fat, vitamins, and minerals. Eggs can also be an alternative meal choice when you don’t feel like meat or fish.
Fish and Seafood
You can enjoy fish and seafood at least twice per week (3-4 ounces per serving).
For the most heart health benefits, choose fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, or sardines. These will provide healthy omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which have been shown to have tremendous cardiovascular benefits.
However, you can also enjoy other types of fish and seafood including cod, tilapia, clams, shrimp, and more.
You may also want to be mindful of the high mercury content in some seafood choices which can cause damage to developing fetuses and newborns. Try to avoid or limit tilefish, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.
Recipe to try: Sardine Pizza With Spinach and Tomato
Poultry and Red Meat
Poultry, including white meat chicken and turkey, can be eaten up to twice weekly (in 3-ounce serving sizes). You can enjoy red meat once or twice per week as well.
You should try to limit processed poultry and other meats by choosing minimally processed forms of these foods to limit your intake of animal fat which is high in unhealthy, saturated fats.
Related article: The Best Alternatives to Deli Meat (Plus 13 Yummy Recipes)
Sweets, including pastries, and other treats, are definitely available in the Mediterranean. I’m sure you’ve heard of baklava, or maybe lemon olive oil cake?
These treats are not off-limits, but they are eaten sparingly and only up to twice per week.
As an alternative to these typically high-fat, high-sugar sweets, try choosing fruit which is naturally sweet, colorful, and full of vitamins and minerals to promote health.
Recipe to try: Turmeric Balls: The Anti-Inflammatory Pick-Me-Up
What Foods Are Not Allowed on the Mediterranean Diet?
Now for more positive news about this dietary pattern. NO FOODS ARE OFF-LIMITS! That’s right!
In a Mediterranean-style diet, all foods can be eaten. The key is to practice moderation and avoid eating an excess of any certain food. This is why the Mediterranean diet is also referred to as a Way of Eating (WOE).
Some foods are eaten in smaller amounts, however. These are red meat, processed meats, and sweets.
Is Red Meat Allowed?
Contrary to what some people may believe, a Mediterranean diet DOES include red meat. Albeit much smaller amounts than you’ll find in a typical Western diet.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines red meat as “all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat“.
So, how often should you eat red meat on a Mediterranean diet?
As you can see, meats are at the top of the Mediterranean diet pyramid which means these foods are eaten very sparingly. This means you should eat them in very small amounts, only once or twice per week.
Is Alcohol Allowed?
Although water is the main beverage of choice (1.5 to 2 liters per day), alcohol is also a regular part of the diet in many areas of the Mediterranean. This is most notable in the form of red wine which contains resveratrol. Resveratrol is a free-radical fighting polyphenol that may have several health benefits.
Overall, the guidelines for alcohol vary a bit from country to country around the Mediterranean. One study on adults over the age of 50 years shows that those adhering to a Mediterranean Alcohol-Drinking Pattern (MADP) had a significantly lower risk of all-cause mortality over a 14-year follow-up time. This is even compared to those who avoided alcohol consumption altogether.
This study did have some limitations, however. For one, the participants were all college graduates, which is not a good representation of the general population. Additionally, some study variables were self-reported which allows room for misinterpretation of alcohol intake.
One important takeaway from this study is that it stresses the importance of an alcohol drinking pattern, not how many grams of alcohol one consumes, as other studies report.
It was found that moderate red wine consumption at meals which is spread throughout the week and avoiding binge drinking reduces one’s risk of all-cause mortality by 48%.
Related article: The Truth Behind Alcohol and Sudden Cardiac Death
What About White Wine?
White wine also contains resveratrol. However, white wines contain 3 to 10 times less resveratrol than red wine varieties. The same is also true for rosé wines which are significantly lower compared to red wines.
So, if you choose to drink wine for the health benefits alone, it’s better to choose a dark red variety like Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, or Pinot Noir over white varieties like Riesling, Ortega, and Gewürztraminer.
Additionally, resveratrol is also found in other plant foods including blueberries, raspberries, apples, plums, pistachios, and peanuts.
Does the AHA recommend a Mediterranean Diet?
Yes. The Mediterranean diet follows the same dietary guidelines that the American Heart Association recommends. This way of eating can help you prevent heart disease, stroke, and reduce other risk factors for obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
The DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension is another diet that the AHA recommends for heart health improvement.
Can You Lose Weight on the Mediterranean Diet?
While it is possible to lose weight by following a Mediterranean diet, weight reduction is not a main focus and strict calorie limitations are not the norm.
A Mediterranean lifestyle naturally includes many foods that are high in fiber and protein but low in fat and calories. This is what makes it likely for some individuals to experience mild to moderate weight loss over time.
It has also been shown to reduce waist circumference and abdominal visceral fat, which is associated with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
In addition, the PREDIMED study revealed that heavier individuals lost more weight by following a Mediterranean diet over 12 months than those following a low-fat diet.
What Else Is Included in a Mediterranean Lifestyle?
The Mediterranean lifestyle doesn’t just include healthy dietary habits. It also stresses the importance of healthy lifestyle factors such as:
- Regular physical exercise
- Avoiding smoking or using any tobacco products
- Enjoying most meals at home with family or friends
- Eating locally-sourced foods when available
Related article: 5 Things You Can Do to Support Heart Health NOW
How To Begin a Mediterranean Diet
A Mediterranean diet for beginners should include several resources to help you get started. We’ve already covered what foods are included and which to limit. We also discussed lifestyle choices that are part of a Mediterranean lifestyle.
Below you’ll find expert tips, a shopping guide, and a sample meal plan that will help get you started today.
Expert Tips For Getting Started
Here are some key tips and things to remember for beginning a Mediterranean diet.
- Focus on fruits and veggies: Design meals around fruits and vegetables. While protein is important, ensuring you add high-nutrient, plant-based foods are just as important. They add color, flavor, and variety to any meal.
- Think WHOLE grain: Swap out processed grains (white bread, regular pasta, and sugary cereals), for whole grains. Try quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread, or oatmeal.
- Choose fatty fish and lean proteins: Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids. When choosing poultry, do not eat the skin which is full of saturated fat and cholesterol. And choose lean cuts of beef like the sirloin.
- Be smart with oils: Olive oil is used as the main source of healthy fat. Limit your intake of other types of fats and oils when cooking or baking that may be higher in saturated fat (I’m talking about you, coconut oil).
- Experiment with herbs and spices: Use herbs and spices to make meals tasty. Onion, garlic, and other herbs and spices are safe to use daily when preparing meals.
- Nix the sweets: Not completely, but don’t make it a daily habit. Choose naturally sweetened fruits like berries, peaches, warm cinnamon apples, or small amounts of dark chocolate.
- Snack wisely: Make sure you have healthy snacks on hand. Try homemade trail mix, low-fat popcorn, pita with hummus, apricots or dates, roasted chickpeas, etc.
Mediterranean Diet Food List PDF
Use this convenient and FREE Mediterranean diet food list to help you as you go grocery shopping. Click the button below to download it now.
Or read all about which Mediterranean diet foods to keep in your pantry.
Easy Mediterranean Diet Recipes for Beginners
You can easily do an online search and find some absolutely delicious Mediterranean-inspired recipes. Below is a quick list of some of my favorite recipes that you can include in your new Mediterranean dietary pattern.
- Mediterranean Diet Oatmeal <== Read this article if you want to know what to eat for breakfast on the Mediterranean diet.
- Mediterranean Quinoa Salad
- Grilled Chicken Summer Salad
- Roasted Vegetable Medley
- Kale Salad with Tahini Dressing
- Spinach Pesto
- Sardine Pizza With Spinach and Tomato
- Vegan Egg Salad
- Unexpectedly Good Dilly Bean Stew with Cabbage
Other Mediterranean Diet Resources
These online sources will provide more clarity by sharing information on the Mediterranean diet, recipes to make at home, and more!
Visit this site to download the Mediterranean diet pyramid in ten different languages! Review some of their articles on the blog, view weekly meal plans, and get some delicious Mediterranean recipes while you’re there as well.
This organization is a food and nutrition non-profit that offers books, 4-week meal plans, and has its very own Facebook Group you can join and follow. Check out the other traditional diets they have information about as well, including Asian, African, and Latin American Heritage diets.
In conclusion, the Mediterranean diet is one of the most popular heart-healthy diets. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities of the Mediterranean diet along with its efficiency in reducing waist circumference and obesity may account for the majority of its positive effects.
However, the benefits are wide-ranging, covering heart health, cancer treatment and prevention, metabolic health, mental health, and beyond.
The fact that no foods are off limits makes this dietary pattern convenient and doable for many people. This is especially true when compared to other diets that promote the restriction of calories, specific foods, or entire food groups.
You can implement the Mediterranean diet into your life by following similar principles to those living in some of the healthiest countries in the world. These include healthy dietary and lifestyle behaviors.
Kiran Campbell is a registered dietitian and entrepreneur with 13 years of experience. She has a degree in psychology as well as dietetics. She is also a proud member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ and its Cardiovascular Health and Well-being Dietetics Practice Group among others. Kiran proudly presents and promotes the most up-to-date, science-based nutrition information on all things heart-related. She aims to serve not only individuals with heart disease, but also those wanting to protect against it. Learn more about Kiran by visiting her About Page.