Wellness Blog

The Beginner's Guide to the Mediterranean Diet

Jul 9, 2018 7:30:00 AM / by The Essential Health and Wellness Team

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is based off of the eating styles of people who lived in Italy and Greece in the 1960s.

Researchers saw that these people were much healthier than the average American in that time and had much lower risks of certain diseases.

Now, additional studies into the Mediterranean diet have shown that the diet can aid in weight loss and prevent heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes and premature death.

The Mediterranean diet is full of plant-based foods, healthy fats, whole grains and the occasional glass of red wine. It is not a low fat diet – in fact, healthy fats are encouraged, much like with the keto diet.

What Do I Eat on the Mediterranean Diet?

The basic principle of the Mediterranean diet is that you eat more plant-based foods, healthy fats and whole grains and less processed foods.

Whole, single-ingredient foods will be key to following the Mediterranean diet.

This diet is not vegetarian, but vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes should trump poultry and seafood in every meal.

Your well-balanced grocery list should include the following:

  • Fruits and Vegetables
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Legumes and Tubers
  • Whole Grains
  • Fish and Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Healthy Fats

Fruits and Vegetables

Healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables should make up the most of your meals when following the Mediterranean diet.

Frozen vegetables and fruits are fine too, as long as you are grabbing healthy mixes of vegetables without added fillers, sauces or seasonings.

Popular choices include:

  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Garlic
  • Eggplant
  • Artichoke
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries

Nuts and Seeds

Whole single-ingredient foods are key in the Mediterranean diet.

That makes raw or roasted nuts or seeds the perfect snack for people following the Mediterranean diet! Plus, nuts and seeds can serve as additional sources of protein and healthy fats. Avoid salted or candied nuts, though.

Keep almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts, as well as pumpkin and sunflower seeds, on hand for snacks.

Natural peanut or almond butter – not the kind with hydrogenated fat added – are good choices, too.

Legumes and Tubers

Foods like beans, lentils, peanuts, peas, chickpeas and potatoes and sweet potatoes are recommended for anyone following the Mediterranean diet.

Again, these should be whole, unprocessed versions of legumes and tubers. Avoid processed foods or fried versions.

Whole Grains

A Mediterranean diet contains plenty of whole grains.

Add things like the following to your grocery basket:

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Couscous
  • Buckwheat
  • Whole oats

Avoid processed white breads and pasta and opt for whole wheat or whole grain versions instead.

Fish and Seafood


Fish and seafood will be your primary protein sources while on the Mediterranean diet. Eat fish or shellfish at least twice a week, if not more often than that, in place of red meat.

Salmon is a popular choice of fish, as well as sardines, trout, tuna or mackerel.

If you can, make sure to consume wild-caught fish. Also, limit your intake of fish with potentially higher levels of mercury, such as tuna.

Poultry

Again, instead of red meat, you can eat poultry like chicken, duck or turkey. Consume poultry in moderation.

You can also use free-range eggs as a protein source, although these should be consumed in moderation as well.

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats are a major component of the Mediterranean diet.

The most popular choice is, as you might expect, extra virgin olive oil. But you can also add olives, avocados, avocado oil, coconut oil and more to your diet.

Avoid unhealthy fats like trans fats or the fats found in processed foods.

What Should I Avoid on the Mediterranean Diet?

There are some foods you should completely eliminate while on the Mediterranean diet and others you should consume in moderation or very minimally.

Some things to avoid or eliminate include:

  • Red Meat
  • Added Sugars
  • Refined Grains
  • Highly Processed Foods
  • Trans or Saturated Fats
  • Refined Oils
  • Processed Meats

Red Meat

Mediterranean people rarely eat red meat, and it is rare on the Mediterranean diet as well.

If you choose to consume steak, ground beef, bacon, etc., do so very infrequently.

The recommended amount of red meat is just 12 to 16 oz. per month while on the Mediterranean diet.

Added Sugars

Avoid the added sugars found in ice cream, candy, chocolate and sugary beverages.

But make sure to read the label – sugar can be hidden in all sorts of processed foods, which makes many processed and prepackaged products foods to avoid as well.

Refined Grains

The Mediterranean diet stresses the value of whole grains – not refined grains.

Refined grains are found in products like:

  • White bread
  • Normal boxed pasta
  • Bagels
  • Cereal

Highly Processed Foods

Remember what we just said about added sugars? Hidden sugar is in many pre-packaged and processed food items, so steer clear of those.

Also be wary of foods labelled “low-fat” or “diet” or that looks like it was made and packaged in a factory.

The basic rule here: If it comes in a box, don’t eat it!

Trans or Saturated Fats

Trans and saturated fats are found in many processed foods – so it’s recommended that you steer clear of those and look for whole, real foods instead.

Also avoid margarine and butter that is pre-processed to steer clear of trans or saturated fats.

Refined Oils

This includes oil like soybean oil, vegetable oil or cottonseed oil.

If you need oil to cook with, use avocado oil or olive oil instead.

Processed Meats

Meat isn’t a huge part of the Mediterranean diet to begin with, as it encourages fish and seafood instead.

So make sure you avoid processed meats like hot dogs, sausages and bacon.

What Can I Drink on the Mediterranean Diet?

Thirsty? Water should be your main beverage while on the Mediterranean diet. Drink the recommended 8 glasses a day and then some.

However, the diet also includes a moderate amount of red wine.

Those on the Mediterranean diet can drink one glass of red wine every day, if they wish. This should be avoided by anyone who has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption or has alcoholism.

You can also drink unsweetened tea or coffee without creamer or milk added in moderation.

Avoid sugary beverages, sodas and fruit juices while on the Mediterranean diet.

Healthy Mediterranean Diet Snacks

While following the Mediterranean diet, it is recommended that you eat in moderation.

Three meals a day is more than enough for those following the Mediterranean diet if you’re making the right choices in what to put on your plate.

But if you get hungry in between, you can reach for a few healthy options for snacks:

  • A handful of raw, unsalted and non-candied nuts
  • A piece of fruit or apple slices with almond butter
  • A handful of berries or grapes
  • Baby carrots or sliced peppers with hummus
  • Greek yogurt

Common Mediterranean Diet Myths

When you hear about the Mediterranean diet, thoughts of “fad” diets or crash diets might come into mind.

But the Mediterranean diet is really about healthy food choices and making significant lifestyle changes.

There are a few common myths associated with the Mediterranean diet that can lead to people avoiding the diet for no good reason or making unhealthy choices while trying to follow the diet.

  1. It costs too much to follow the Mediterranean diet.
  2. If one glass of wine is healthy, three glasses is healthier.
  3. I can’t eat out while on the Mediterranean diet.
  4. The Mediterranean diet is only about food.

1. It Costs Too Much To Follow the Mediterranean Diet

Shopping for Mediterranean diet-friendly foods shouldn’t be significantly more expensive than your current groceries are.

The cost of red meat and poultry can add up quick. Eliminating these almost entirely from your diet will decrease your grocery bill significantly.

Plant-based foods, whole grains, legumes and tubers are also usually more affordable than processed or packaged foods, and you will need less of them to feel full.

2. If One Glass of Red Wine is Healthy, Three Glasses is Healthier

While a glass of red wine a day while on the Mediterranean diet is allowed and even encouraged, it is important to be able to limit yourself to that one glass.

One glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men has been shown to have unique health benefits, especially for your heart. But drinking too much consistently can be bad for your heart.

3. I Can’t Eat Out While On the Mediterranean Diet

Some diets probably do make it hard to eat out. Not with the Mediterranean diet!

The Mediterranean diet is more common than you think, so it isn’t too tough to follow the guidelines while eating out or traveling.

A few tips for eating out while on the Mediterranean diet:

  1. Order seafood or fish.
  2. If fish is not an option, look for a light dish with poultry as the main protein.
  3. Ask for the chef to prepare your food in olive oil.
  4. Order fresh vegetables or a side salad on the side.
  5. Skip any rolls or bread provided before the meal.

4. The Mediterranean Diet is Only About Food.

Food is a huge part of the Mediterranean diet – that’s why it’s called a diet, after all.

However, a key component of the Mediterranean diet is also making lifestyle changes overall. Mediterranean people eat their meals and live in a much more relaxed, laid back environment overall.

Lifestyle changes while on the Mediterranean diet might include:

  • Slowing down and savoring each bite of your meal
  • Sharing your meals with other people
  • Regular physical activity
  • Staying properly hydrated

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet has been studied for years because of its health benefits. It is known as a very heart-healthy diet, but it also has many other health benefits in addition to preventing heart disease.

Various studies have shown that following the Mediterranean diet can aid in the following:

  • Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
  • Prevent Type 2 Diabetes
  • Help You Live Longer
  • Increase Weight Loss

The Mediterranean Diet is Heart Healthy

Many studies have shown that people following the Mediterranean diet (originally, people living in certain countries around the Mediterranean sea) are less likely to develop some form of heart disease.

People following the Mediterranean diet are less likely to be at risk for stroke, heart attack or death from other cardiovascular diseases.

The Mediterranean Diet Prevents Type 2 Diabetes

Research has shown that people following the Mediterranean diet are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. It is also an effective diet plan for people who may already have diabetes.

The foods encouraged in the Mediterranean diet – vegetables, fruits, fish and olive oil, mainly – are rich in healthy fats and are proven to lower blood sugar and cholesterol.

The Mediterranean Diet May Help You Live Longer

Some studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can help you live longer.

You are more likely to avoid heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other issues that plague people who do not follow the Mediterranean diet.

Because the Mediterranean diet also involves many lifestyle changes, you may also be living better and experience less stress.

The Mediterranean Diet Helps You Lose Weight

The Mediterranean diet doesn’t just help you lose weight because you are making healthy choices – it helps you lose it in a healthy way and keep the weight off long-term, if you continue to make healthy choices.

It is a less restrictive diet that still includes many foods that you might consider luxuries on other diets.

Because you still get to eat most of your favorite foods – only skipping out on the processed foods and junk food – you will feel satiated and more likely to stick with it over time.

The Essential Health and Wellness Team

Written by The Essential Health and Wellness Team

As integrative and functional medicine providers, the Essential Health & Wellness team will always take a personalized approach to your care. Our board-certified physicians and advanced care practitioners believe in treating people, not symptoms, and place wellness and prevention at the forefront of our practice.

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