What is the Mediterranean diet?
It is generally recognized that residents of Mediterranean countries live longer and suffer less from cancer and cardiovascular disease than most Americans. The not-so-surprising secret lies in an active lifestyle, weight control and a diet low in red meat, sugar and saturated fats and high in produce, nuts and other healthy foods. A Mediterranean diet can offer many health benefits, including weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control. Adhering to a Mediterranean diet can help you keep your excess weight off while avoiding chronic diseases.
There is no such thing as a Mediterranean diet. Greeks eat differently than Italians, who eat differently than the French and Spanish. But they share many of the same principles. Working with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, Oldways, a nonprofit nutrition think tank in Boston, has developed a consumer-friendly Mediterranean diet pyramid that offers suggestions on how to fill your plate – and perhaps your glass of wine – the Mediterranean way.
These diets are within accepted norms for proteins, carbs, fats and other nutrients.
The Mediterranean diet ranked first in the ranking of the best diets overall. Thirty-nine diets were rated with the help of a panel of health experts.
How does the Mediterranean diet work?
Because it is a dietary pattern rather than a structured diet, it is up to you to determine how many calories you need to consume to lose or maintain weight, what you will do to stay active, and how you will shape your Mediterranean menu. The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid should help you get started. This pyramid emphasizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, aromatic herbs and spices, fish and seafood at least a couple times a week, poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation, and save sweets and red meat for special occasions. Add to that a glass of red wine (if you like), don’t forget physical activity, and you’re all set.
A glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men is optional, if your doctor says so. Red wine has gained traction because of its resveratrol content, a compound that seems to add years to your life – but you’ll have to drink hundreds or thousands of glasses to get enough resveratrol to make a difference.
What you can eat
- Buckwheat pancakes. Place sliced bananas or a cup of blueberries on a small stack and drizzle with a couple tablespoons of light maple syrup.
- Greek yogurt. Add strawberries or raspberries and a teaspoon of honey to sweeten. To make a fuller breakfast, it can be combined with a slice of whole-grain toast buttered with crushed avocado.
- Mediterranean Pasta Salad. Get your portion of carbs without the guilt. This lunch option combines pasta noodles dressed with extra virgin olive oil, red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese.
- Chicken souvlaki. Gather up all the good stuff: wrapped chicken and veggies. Have a quick or slow lunch by adding couscous.
- Roasted almonds. Grab a handful of almonds for a protein-rich snack that will keep you from hitting the sweet stuff later in the day.
- Grilled Salmon. Cook seafood by grilling it over an open fire. Add an arugula and spinach or wild greens salad to this dish.
- Quinoa Salad. This ancient edible source of plant protein can be combined with a wide variety of other healthy foods that grow out of the ground, from eggplant to onions.
- Chocolate Mousse. If you’re craving something sweet after dinner, treat yourself to a delicious chocolate mousse. The recipe uses bitter dark chocolate, extra virgin olive oil, eggs, sugar, salt, orange zest and orange liqueur.
- Steamed Mussels Try steaming mussels, a fresh seafood dish that can be made in about half an hour. Cook them in dry white wine for extra flavor.
- Pumpkin Soup. If you’re crazy about all things pumpkin in the fall, “spicy pumpkin soup” is the perfect dish for an appetizer, lunch or dinner.
- French fries. You don’t have to give up French fries to be healthy. Keep this favorite dish in your diet by baking it in the oven the Mediterranean way instead of frying it.
Banana Peanut Bread Make “peanut banana bread” on Sunday and you have an easy breakfast or snack option for the week.
How much does the Mediterranean diet cost?
The cost of the Mediterranean diet, like most aspects of the diet, depends on how you shape it. While some ingredients (particularly olive oil, nuts, fish and fresh produce) can be expensive, you can find ways to keep a reasonable bill-especially if you substitute red meat and home-cooked, plant-based meals, as some studies show. Your shopping choices matter, too. Can’t buy a $50 bottle of wine? Get a $15 bottle. And get whatever vegetables are on sale that day, not artichokes at $3 apiece.
Will the Mediterranean diet help you lose weight?
The Mediterranean diet can help you lose weight. Although some people fear that a Mediterranean-like diet that is relatively high in fat (olive oil, olives, avocados and some cheese) will help them get fat, a growing body of research suggests otherwise. Of course, it all depends on which aspects you take and how they relate to your current diet. If, for example, you incorporate a “calorie deficit” into your plan – consuming fewer calories than the recommended maximum daily allowance, or burning off excess calories through exercise – you should lose a few pounds. How fast and whether you can keep them off is up to you.
Here’s a review of several studies on weight loss on the Mediterranean diet:
A 2018 study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes analyzed the diets of 32,119 Italian participants over 12 years. The researchers concluded that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with lower weight gain and a smaller increase in waist circumference. However, they also report that the study has limitations and that more research is needed to confirm the findings.
In 2019, The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology republished an updated analysis of data from the Predimed study, a five-year study that included 5,859 adults (1,588 participants were missed when the study was rejected and republished in 2017) with type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular risk who were assigned to either a Mediterranean diet with olive oil, the same diet with added nuts, or a control diet. Although there were no statistically significant differences in the olive oil group, those on the Mediterranean diet with nuts showed a difference in waist volume over five years.
In a 2010 study published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, 259 overweight diabetics were put on one of three diets: a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet, a traditional Mediterranean diet or a diet based on the American Diabetes Association recommendations. All groups were encouraged to exercise for 30 to 45 minutes at least three times a week. After one year, all groups had lost weight; the traditional group lost an average of about 16 pounds, the ADA group lost 17 pounds, and the low-carb group lost 22 pounds.
A 2008 analysis of 21 studies in the journal Obesity Reviews found that the jury is still out on whether following the Mediterranean diet will lead to weight loss or reduce the likelihood of being overweight or obese.
How easy is it to follow the Mediterranean diet?
Since the Mediterranean diet does not prohibit whole food groups, you should have no problem following it in the long run.
The Mediterranean diet can be convenient. When you want to cook a meal, there’s a recipe and extra wine to take you across the Atlantic. Oldways’ consumer-friendly tips will make planning and cooking easier. You can eat out, as long as you take someone with you to share the heavy meals.
Oldways offers many Mediterranean recipes, including this guide, which features dishes that cost less than $2 a serving. Also, a simple Google search will help you find lots of healthy Mediterranean meal ideas. Want more inspiration? Oldways recommends “Mediterranean Diet Menu Plan for 4 Weeks.”
If you’re eating out, following the Mediterranean diet, take advantage of the fact that the diet involves eating together, ordering one meal for two. And don’t forget to start with a homemade salad or order extra vegetables on the menu to get you full.
You can save time on a Mediterranean diet if you prepare and store your meals in advance; otherwise, you’ll have to hire someone to plan, shop and prepare the meal if your time is more valuable than your wallet.
The Oldways website has many free resources on the Mediterranean diet, including an easy-to-understand food pyramid, a printable food list, tips on transitioning to a Mediterranean diet based on gender and age, a quick read brochure, a recipe newsletter, and even a glossary with definitions of basic Mediterranean diet foods, from bruschetta to tapenade.
Hunger should not be an issue with this diet; fiber and healthy fats are satiating, and you will eat plenty of fiber-rich foods and whole grains, as well as cooking with satiating fats such as olive oil. Nutrition experts stress the importance of satiety – feeling satisfied that you’re full.
You cook everything yourself, so if something doesn’t seem good, you know who to blame.
How much exercise should I do during the Mediterranean diet?
Exercise on the Mediterranean diet is necessary – but it shouldn’t feel like exercise.
Walking, which is often a staple of the Mediterranean lifestyle, is a good place to start, but add anything you enjoy, whether it’s jazzercise, gardening or Pilates. Do whatever you can do.
As an adult, it’s generally recommended that you do at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity activity each week, and give a couple of days to muscle-strengthening activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some tips.