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A Complete Guide to the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy pattern of eating in which fattening desserts, red meats, and dairy products are eschewed in favor of plant-based foods and natural sources of heart-healthy fats. But, more than this, the Mediterranean diet aims to encapsulate a healthy lifestyle. Those seeking the full benefits of the diet are encouraged to enjoy their meals with friends and to engage in regular exercise.

If this sounds a bit intimidating, it may be helpful to know that this diet is well worth the trouble.

Why Should I Consider Pursuing the Mediterranean Diet?

Before starting any endeavor, it's useful to ask yourself: is it worth it? Afterall, there's no sense in making a big change to your life if the only benefit is shedding two or thee pounds only to see you gain the weight back a few weeks later.

For most people, the answer is simple: yes! The Mediterranean diet can help support heart, ocular, respiratory and dental health; is associated with reduced risk for certain cancers, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's; and, the diet offers all these without being as restrictive as many other diets such as paleo, vegetarian, and vegan diets.

While many diets claim to offer these benefits, the Mediterranean diet is among the few that have been backed by numerous scientific surveys and studies. In a 2006 paper, Willet provides an overview of research pertinent to the diet only to come to the conclusion that more than 80% of coronary disease, 70% of stroke, and 90% of type 2 diabetes are preventable simply by making dietary choices that are consistent with the Mediterranean diet.

So— What Exactly IS the Mediterranean Diet?

A salad and fruit represent a healthy selection compatible with the Mediterranean Diet.

We already defined the diet in general terms, but most people serious about improving their health would like some hard and fast rules to inform their decisions. Unfortunately, this is where the eating pattern contrasts with fad diets and other “traditional” approaches. To understand why this is the case is as simple as understanding the origin of the diet: a simple model of the way real people have been eating for centuries.

In the 1950s, an Ancel Keys discovered an unusual phenomenon: the poor population of small towns in Southern Italy was much healthier than wealthy citizens of New York. This observation led Keys to suspect a connection to diet and cardiovascular disease and inspired him to conduct a study aimed at confirming this suspicion.

From Keys' research, nutritionists would later define aspects of a healthy diet that culminated in the Mediterranean diet as we know it today. Since, however, these aspects were determined by observing the existing dietary habits of a large population— there are only some general guidelines that describe the fundamental aspects of this pattern of eating and the accompanying lifestyle (Altomare et al., 2013).

The most important aspects of the diet can be met by the following actions:

Striking a Balance Between Food Groups

In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defined a food pyramid that displays a balanced way of eating, intending to ensure that meals and snacks throughout the day provide the nutrients the body needs in their proper proportion. This pyramid was an insight into the structure of the Mediterranean diet, closely matching the way this eating pattern was structured. However, simply abiding by the chart leaves plenty of room for improvement.

In spite of sticking to the proportions described, it's still essential to choose the right types of each food groups by...

Opting for Nutrient-dense Foods

While common sources of carbohydrates such as bread, rice, and pasta are certainly staples of the diet— whole grain varieties of each are recommended in place of their refined carbohydrates. Additionally, vegetables and fruits should play a prominent role on your plate and act as a larger source of calories than is traditionally the case. In fact, the diet places a strong emphasis on plant-based foods when it comes to meeting your caloric needs, as beans, seeds, and nuts play a large role in the diet as well.

But eating plant-based foods is only one aspect of this eating pattern. Opting for lean protein, eschewing dairy for sources of healthy fats like olive oil, and ensuring your diet includes plenty of variety. To help spice things up, seasoning your meals with herbs rather than salt can also help further refine this eating pattern.

Restricting Sodium Intake

Salt is a staple in many cuisines, but overdoing it can lead to a number of health problems such as hypertenion and, consequentially, an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. While this may seem as simple as combining herbs and spices to provide an alternative source of flavor in dishes, it also means watching the sources of your foods for added salt. Many canned goods, refined breads, and prepackaged meats include added salt that can adversely affect your health.

To this effect, opting for fresh foods and learning to closely monitor the nutrition labels of the foods your purchase can help you find foods that meet all of your nutritional needs while shopping. Additionally, utilizing vinegars and olive oil as an alternative to salted butter, salad dressings, and other common seasonings can reduce your intake of both unhealthy fats and sodium.

Food Isn't Everything— Remember, It's More Than a Diet

Exercise is one crucial component to the diet that doesn't revolve around food.

Once you have your diet in order, it's important to remember that it's only one component of the lifestyle associated with the Mediterranean diet. In order to experience the benefits we listed above, it's essential to add exercise to your daily schedule. It can be as simple as adding an extended walk with your family after dinner, or it can entail enjoying an early morning jog. Simply find an activity that works for you and make it a habit!

In addition to exercise, it's important to enjoy your meal! Luckily, most people don't struggle with the idea of making their meals more pleasurable. One way to easily achieve this end is to enjoy a single serving of red wine, as is commonly associated with the diet, in the company of close friends or family. In addition to lightening the mood, when consumed in moderation red wine can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and osteoporosis (Jaret, 2001).

However, it is important to remember that enjoying a glass of wine is completely optional. In fact, a family history of alcoholism should deter one from partaking in daily wine- those who are already suffering from heart or hepatic diseases should also circumvent this suggestion and avoid alcohol altogether.

Instead of imbibing wine, or in addition to it, dieters should limit their beverage selections to water and the occasional cup of tea or coffee. The caffeine content of the tea and coffee is thought to benefit digestion (Watson, 2014). This being said, each beverage is to be enjoyed only in controlled quantities.

Mediterranean Diet Recipes

These recipes supply a hearty variety of dishes that supply you both with needed nutrients and fantastically toothsome flavors. Each recipe makes use of popular staples of the diet and many can be enjoyed multiples time throughout the week.

Farro Vegetable Salad

Farro Vegetable Salad Recipe

A scrumptious salad made with a diverse selection of wholesome ingredients that provide an ample supply of vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates to give you the energy needed to get through the day!
Ingredients: Organic farro, sun dried tomatoes, frozen corn (thawed), scallions, black olives, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots, salt, fresh dill, fresh mint, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar.
Total Time: 1 hour | Yield: 6 254-gram servings

Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad {gluten-free}

Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad Recipe {gluten-free}

This classic staple salad offers the quintessential elements of a Mediterranean dish to enjoy as often as you please. With over 5 grams of fiber, 8 grams of protein and 8 grams of unsaturated fats in each serving, this dish offers everything your body needs in one delicious package!
Ingredients: Quinoa, cherry tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh parsley, fresh mint, black pepper, salt.
Total Time: 40 minutes | Yield: 4 servings

Broccoli Quinoa Salad {gluten-free}

Broccoli Quinoa Salad Recipe {gluten-free}

Yet another scrumptious salad that supplies a superb source of dietary fiber and protein, this dish also includes pumpkin seeds and fresh broccoli to provide an abundant amount of essential vitamins and minerals.
Ingredients: Fresh broccoli, quinoa, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, raw pumpkin seeds, sea salt, black pepper, Dijon mustard (optional), vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, maple syrup.
Total Time: 1 hour | Yield: 8 217-gram servings

Quinoa Veggie Wrap {vegan}

Quinoa Veggie Wrap Recipe {vegan}

Another quinoa-based dish, this hearty wrap offers a brief break from the steady stream of salads with a snack that still supplies a nutritionally sound source of complex carbs, vitamins, and minerals. The wraps are also easily transported, making them a supremely convenient treat.
Ingredients: Tortilla wraps, quinoa, hummus, fresh spinach, sun-tomatoes, shredded carrots.
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 4 wraps

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers {gluten-free}

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers Recipe {gluten-free}

A slight deviation from traditional Mediterranean cuisine, this dish still has the heart of the diet in mind with a blend of whole grains and vegetables that meets the Daily Values (DVs) for fiber and vitamin C while providing a whopping 30 grams of protein per serving- and, they taste great!
Ingredients: Quinoa, green bell peppers, canned lentils, fresh spinach, feta cheese, frozen corn (thawed), salt, black pepper.
Total Time: 40 minutes | Yield: 6 259-gram servings (8 half-peppers)

Farro Risotto with Mushrooms

Farro Risotto with Mushrooms Recipe

A fantastic dinner option, this farro risotto is a truly classic dish that defines what makes the Mediterranean diet great: incredible tastes and truly impressive nutritive value.
Ingredients: Organic pearled farro, sliced mushrooms, garlic cloves, extra virgin olive oil, frozen peas, salt, fresh basil, parmesan cheese, hot water.
Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes | Yield: 6 servings

Mediterranean Snack Suggestions

These snacks were hand-chosen by our Health Nut and Registered Dietitian to fit the standards set out by the wholesome diet. Each option tastes great and offers a healthy means of abating your hunger until your next hearty Mediterranean meal.

References

Altomare, R., Cacciabaudo, F., Damiano, G., Palumbo, V. D., Gioviale, M. C., Bellavia, M., … Lo Monte, A. I. (2013). The Mediterranean Diet: A History of Health. Iranian Journal of Public Health, 42(5), 449–457.

Jaret, P. (2001). Bottoms Up: To Your Health. Retrieved December 7, 2016, from http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/health-benefits-wine#3

Watson, S. (2014, June 18). Caffeine and a healthy diet may boost memory, thinking skills; alcohol’s effect uncertain. Retrieved December 7, 2016, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/caffeine-healthy-diet-may-boost-memory-thinking-skills-alcohols-effect-uncertain-201406187219

Willett, W. C. (2006). The Mediterranean diet: science and practice. Public Health Nutrition, 9(1A), 105-110.