Written by Anna Pashkova, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-EP / Reviewed by Chef Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, CD, FAND
You may have heard of it, but have you ever wondered what the Mediterranean diet is all about? If the answer is yes, or if you already know what it is and are looking for some ideas and recipes, you've come to the right place. I've outlined the ins and outs of the typical foods consumed in the Mediterranean region, why their diet and lifestyle is one of the world's healthiest and how to emulate that, no matter where you live.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet comes from the region surrounding the Mediterranean sea. It's based on the traditional eating habits of the people who live in the area and is widely recognized to be one of the easiest and healthiest eating patterns to follow by health professionals, including dietitians.
Here are the main components of the Mediterranean diet:
- Fruits + vegetables: A driving factor of this eating pattern, fruits and veggies make up a large portion of the diet since it is heavily plant-based. A variety of produce is encouraged such as olives, tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes, grapes, citrus fruit, cucumbers and more!
- Whole grains: This can include brown rice, oats, whole grain pasta and breads, buckwheat, and others. Whole grains make a great base for meals or as a healthy snack!
- Beans + legumes: You'll see more beans and legumes in the Mediterranean Diet than meat, and especially red meat. Any types of beans work as well as chickpeas, peas, and lentils.
- Healthy fats: A variety of foods can contribute to this category like nuts, seeds, and extra-virgin olive oil. While seafood and fish are their own category, fatty fish can count as healthy fats as well. Olive oil can be used in some cooking and in salad dressing. Nuts and seeds can be added to snacks or as toppings, and fatty fish can be a great protein source to round out a meal.
- Fish + seafood: One of the primary protein sources in the Mediterranean diet, fish and seafood also bring in a ton of heart- and brain-healthy nutrients like omega-3s.
What isn't part of the Mediterranean Diet?
While there aren't necessarily any hard and fast rules about the Mediterranean Diet, it's known to be lower in things like highly processed foods, added sugars and sugary drinks, refined carbohydrates, salt, saturated fats, and processed or fatty meats.
And even if the recipe doesn't specifically include traditional ingredients found in Mediterranean cooking, as long as it's packed with vegetables, fruit, beans, grains, seafood, fish, olive oil, and the like, it can still be included in the Mediterranean diet because these ingredients are packed with nutrition!
For example, an Asian-inspired dish that's loaded with vegetables can easily be part of the Mediterranean diet.
My MIND and brain health cookbooks are full of Mediterranean-style recipes!
The lifestyle of the Mediterranean
While the food and nutrition component of the Mediterranean lifestyle is important, the health of the Mediterranean people is also attributed to many other lifestyle habits. In general, they tend to enjoy life at a slower, more intentional pace.
This includes a bigger focus on mindful eating at meals, which are usually home cooked and can last an hour or two (or more!).
Food is celebrated as something to enjoy, savor and connect over with loved ones, often with red wine as the drink of choice. In addition, natural ways of movement are incorporated throughout their day, like walking whenever possible.
All of this is truly part of a lifestyle, meaning no calorie counting or over-planning each move. It's just a part of their daily "normal".
While we may not always be able to model their way of living, we can all certainly take away some tips from the people of the Mediterranean region.
Healthy Mediterranean-Inspired Recipes
If you're looking for recipe ideas that fit into the Mediterranean diet eating pattern, here are a few to get you started: