The Mediterranean Diet for Beginners: The Complete Guide
The Mediterranean diet is rich in delicious and nutritious foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, olive oil, legumes, whole grains, and fish.
It is associated with improved overall health as well as brain health, heart health, and metabolic health. It can even extend your healthspan and lifespan, leading to a longer and healthier life.
In this article we will review the Mediterranean food principles, benefits of the diet, sample meal plan, and how it compares to other popular diets.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is a meal plan that came from the olive-growing countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (Greece, Spain, and Italy). A landmark study showed that death rates in selected countries near the Mediterranean Sea were substantially lower compared with those in westernized countries, such as the United States and Great Britain.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating whole, fresh, unprocessed foods instead of processed meals that have added sugars, salt, preservatives, and other unrecognizable ingredients.
General guidelines for the diet are used to lead you along the Mediterranean style of eating. There are no strict rules to follow or specific foods to completely avoid, like in some other diets.
The flexibility allows it to fit into just about any cultural style of eating.
The adaptability of the Mediterranean diet makes it an excellent choice for a long-term healthy eating style.
What to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
Enjoy these foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, seafood, herbs and spices, olive oil.
Eat these in moderation: poultry, eggs, and dairy such as cheese, yogurt and butter.
Eat these occasionally: Red meat.
Avoid eating these: highly processed foods, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, sugar sweetened beverages such as soda and energy drinks, refined grains, refined vegetable oils, and processed meats.
Foods to focus on:
- Vegetables such as spinach, kale, asparagus, arugula, lettuce, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, winter squash, etc.
- Fruits such as berries, cherries, apples, peaches, oranges, pears, melons
- Legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, edamame, and peas
- Whole grains such as brown rice, wild black rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat
- Fish and seafood such as salmon, cod, herring, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, shrimp, crab, oysters, and mussels
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, avocado oil, and olives
- Nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds
The best beverages to choose would be water, herbal tea, green tea, black tea, and coffee. Be mindful about adding sugar to your beverages. Sparkling water and naturally flavored seltzer waters are also good options.
A moderate amount of red wine (about 1 glass/day) is included in the diet but is completely optional. Avoid consuming alcohol if you have difficulty drinking in moderation, are pregnant, are taking medications that interact with alcohol, or cannot tolerate alcohol.
Pros and Cons of the Mediterranean Diet:
The benefits of the diet will vary from person to person individually, but they can include:
- Improving overall health and longevity
- Improving heart health and metabolic health
- Improving memory and cognition.
The diet can promote weight loss and weight maintenance, as well as improving insulin resistance, especially when paired with exercise and calorie restriction. Calories in cannot exceed calories out when aiming to lose weight.
The diet is beneficial for those looking for a flexible, inclusive meal plan that can be followed long-term. It is a great option for those who want to focus on whole foods, plant-based choices, and still include fish and some animal products.
The Mediterranean food plan can lead to a reduced risk of:
- Heart disease
- Some cancers
Cons of the Mediterranean Diet
It can take more time to plan and prepare meals from whole food sources. Luckily, LifeChef helps with that! The Mediterranean diet does not have as many specific guidelines as other diets, so it can be more difficult to navigate. You may need additional guidance based on your specific goals or medical conditions.
What a Balanced Mediterranean Diet looks like:
This plan is the most inclusive, healthy food plan LifeChef offers. It can fit almost anyone’s basic needs, preferences and cultural eating styles. LifeChef offers vegan and vegetarian meal components to choose from such as beans, lentils, and mushrooms. All components that LifeChef provides can fit into a Mediterranean-style diet. The key is choosing diverse meal ingredients and a variety of proteins.
Build your meals around plant foods. You should aim for half of your plate to be filled with vegetables. When choosing components, choose at least 2 plant-based components such as vegetables and whole grains.
Each meal should contain a protein food such as beans, lentils, tofu, fish, poultry, beef or pork, at least one non-starchy vegetable such as spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, asparagus, green beans, etc., and can include a complex carbohydrate such as rice, quinoa, farro, potato, winter squash or roasted root vegetables.
Tips for Creating Your Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan:
- Start by choosing more plant proteins. Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, mushrooms, edamame, or chickpeas are great options for plant-based proteins. If you are planning 7 dinners for the week, aim for at least 2-4 meals to include a plant-based protein. If you are currently more used to the traditional “meat and potatoes” style of eating, try starting with one plant-based meal a week, and then add one at a time every 2-3 weeks.
- Include fish and seafood. These contain healthy omega-3 fats that help with brain health and inflammation. Aim to have fish/seafood at least 2 times a week.
- Pick meats on occasion. Think of meat as a side to your plate filled with plant foods. Limit red meat intake to once a week. Poultry can be included a couple of times a week, if preferred. For example, if you are planning 7 dinners for the week, 1-3 meals could include poultry.
- Limit white pasta, white rice, corn, and white potatoes as occasional options. Instead, opt for non-starchy vegetables and whole grains, and swap white pasta with a more nutrient dense, and fiber-filled choice such as chickpea pasta.
A Week of Easy Mediterranean Diet Meals
Breakfast: Steel cut oatmeal with blueberries and slivered almonds
Lunch: Black bean soup with flaxseed crackers
Dinner: LifeChef herb roasted salmon, steamed broccoli and sweet potato, and butternut mash
Snack: Apple with peanut butter.
Breakfast: Egg omelet with cheese, peppers and onions, 1 pear
Lunch: Salad with tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, topped with olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing
Dinner: LifeChef Greek style grilled chicken, brussels sprouts, and toasted almond couscous
Snack: Carrots with hummus.
Breakfast: Avocado toast on 100% whole wheat bread
Lunch: Tuna salad on a bed of spinach, whole grain crackers
Dinner: LifeChef chili con carne, steamed spinach, and roasted mushrooms
Snack: Greek yogurt.
Breakfast: Apple cinnamon buckwheat porridge
Lunch: Chickpea pasta primavera
Dinner: LifeChef creamy white beans, roasted cauliflower, and brown and wild rice
Snack: Celery with peanut butter.
Breakfast: Vegetable frittata with avocado
Lunch: Roasted turkey breast, farro with butternut squash, green beans
Dinner: LifeChef red lentil curry with braised kale and basmati rice pilaf
Snack: Cheese with almond flour crackers.
Breakfast: Plain Greek yogurt with walnuts, berries, and a drizzle of honey
Lunch: Quinoa bowl with roasted vegetables and feta cheese
Dinner: LifeChef cod with lemon and herb butter, spaghetti squash, and roasted root vegetables
Snack: Orange, cashews.
Breakfast: Smoothie with hemp seeds, fruit, spinach, and milk of choice
Lunch: Chicken stir fry with vegetables and brown rice
Dinner: LifeChef grilled eggplant caprese, roasted mushrooms, and asparagus
Snack: Black bean chips with salsa.
How it Compares to Other Popular Diets
The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) focuses on increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and limited intake of red meat, salt, and added sugar. It has certain criteria for sodium intake to help with blood pressure. DASH was originally developed and studied as a diet to reduce high blood pressure. Similarly, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole, plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. LifeChef’s Mediterranean diet options can fit similar criteria to the DASH diet because LifeChef aims to keep sodium in moderation and avoids adding sugars. Try choosing LifeChef’s fish, beans, or lentils as a majority of your protein components, and pair with vegetables and whole grain sides.
The MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. The goal is to focus on promoting brain health, specifically reducing dementia and cognitive decline.
Foods to eat include leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish, beans, and poultry. Foods to limit include butter and margarine, cheese, red meat, fried foods, pastries, and sweets.
Similarly, LifeChef’s Mediterranean meal components emphasize these whole food options, and avoids adding sugars, high amounts of sodium, or using any deep-fried foods. Customize your components to include more leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as whole grains, such as quinoa and brown rice. Like the Mediterranean diet eating pattern, choose a variety of protein options, including legumes, chicken, and fish, and limit red meats in order to follow the MIND style of eating.
How can a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist help to customize your diet?
The diet plan can be adjusted based on your individual needs, goals and preferences. A Registered Dietitian can help you map out what your ideal components should look like for a more personalized approach to reaching your health goals. Diet is not just calories in and calories out; it is about what foods you eat, and which micronutrients and macronutrients you consume – this will impact your overall outcomes.
By Amy Laessig, RDN, LDN, CHC