Diets Decoded: The Mediterranean Diet
Is the Mediterranean Diet healthy?
All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables. (Again, we’re talking about the ones that fall somewhere on the healthy spectrum, not unhealthy fad diets like, ahem, the Grapefruit Diet.)
However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles.
In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any!) is right for you. We’ll quickly explain the facts and then provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life (with recipe suggestions!).
The Mediterranean Diet is inspired by the traditional diets of people who live around the Mediterranean sea, particularly in Greece and Southern Italy. It emphasizes plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, plenty of extra-virgin olive oil, and fresh fish.
True followers focus on eating seasonally (although depending on where you live, the seasonal foods available may not exactly be those that are available near the Mediterranean). How you eat also matters: preferably with friends and family while enjoying red wine and each other’s company.
What You Eat
Tons of fresh veggies, some fruit, whole grains like brown rice, beans, and nuts. Fish and chicken are key, especially flavored with fresh herbs and spices. Dairy is included occasionally—in the form of fresh cheeses and yogurt—as are eggs. While pasta is a staple, it’s usually consumed in small portions at the start of a meal and freshly prepared.
Picture a vibrant Greek salad with greens, juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta tossed in EVOO and herbs and topped with a piece of grilled chicken or fish.
What You Don’t Eat
You generally stay away from processed, packaged foods made with added sugar or refined grains and oils. Red meat is limited to an occasional option (i.e. a few times a month), and you stick to olive oil in lieu of other cooking fats like butter and canola oil.
Pros and Cons
The basics of this diet mirror the basic principles of good nutrition: whole foods, tons of veggies, and healthy fats. (Win, win, win!)
Its health benefits are also the most well-documented (of ALL diets, seriously ) by research studies. It’s particularly powerful when it comes to heart health. It’s been linked to lowering heart disease risk factors like high LDL cholesterol levels and high blood sugar and to reducing heart attacks and death from heart disease. The diet may also protect your brain as you age.
Bonus: the Mediterranean Diet recognizes the importance of enjoying meals (and a really nice bottle of red) with family and friends, which comes with additional mental health benefits.
The only potential con is that it may be hard to recreate while trying to eat locally depending on where you live, and some of the benefits may stem from the broader Mediterranean lifestyle. (In other words, if you can move to a gorgeous, remote Greek island, we highly recommend it.) You can also overdo it: it’s easy to go a little overboard on portion size when picking at olives and cheese while sipping red wine.
3 Mediterranean Diet-Approved Recipes
Next Up: Is the Paleo Diet healthy?