The Mediterranean Diet Is a Healthy Eating Plan. Here’s How to Make it Work For You
The Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and early death. Follow these 10 simple tips to get the most benefit out of this diet.
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Based on the traditional diet of Greece, southern Italy, and Spain, the Mediterranean diet focuses on high consumption of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, legumes, and whole grains, along with moderate fish, dairy, and red wine consumption, and infrequent use of meat. It’s a plan worth following: studies show that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and early death; more recent studies also link it with increased brain health in older adults and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Take full advantage of this healthy eating plan with these 10 simple tips.
1. Double down on veggies
We’re not kidding: the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet is lots and lots of vegetables. Research overwhelmingly supports the health benefits of a plant-heavy diet: one study found that people who ate seven or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day had a reduced risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. In another study, more than five servings per day slashed the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer, and early death; and researchers estimated that 10 servings per day could prevent up to 7.8 million premature deaths.
Some ideas to try:
- Add vegetables to your breakfast, with an asparagus, mushroom, and zucchini omelet, or mixed-vegetable breakfast burritos.
- Turn spinach, shredded carrots, tomatoes, onions, red peppers, avocado, and hummus into a hearty wrap.
- Layer vegetables—eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli, leeks, sweet potatoes, and more—into a casserole, or make a seven-veggie stew.
- Make tomato sauce with herbs, garlic, and olive oil—heating tomatoes with oil makes their heart-protective lycopene more available to the body.
See Also 30 Ways to Eat More Veggies
2. Learn to love legumes
Beans, peas, and lentils are a significant source of protein in the Mediterranean diet, and they’re also one of the best dietary sources of fiber—a cup of navy beans, for example, has more protein than two eggs and as much fiber as nine slices of whole-wheat bread. Legumes are also high in polyphenol antioxidants and resistant starch, an indigestible type of starch that has been shown to improve gut bacteria, reduce body weight, and protect against colon cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases.
To add more legumes to your diet:
- Purée white beans with garlic and roasted red peppers for a zesty dip.
- Sneak red kidney beans into vegetable soups.
- Toss French lentils with arugula, tomatoes, red onions, radicchio, and olive oil for a protein-rich salad.
- Turn chickpeas, brown rice, and chopped vegetables into easy veggie burgers.
3. Get hooked on fish
Fish and seafood are a good catch: they’re high in lean protein, selenium, vitamin B, and vitamin D, and studies show that eating two ounces of fish per day could reduce risk of death by 12 percent. Fatty fish is even better: salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, herring, and mackerel are loaded with omega-3 fats that reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, prevent cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death, relieve arthritis, improve mood, and protect eye health. To get more fish on your dish:
- Layer cod or tilapia with asparagus, leeks, peppers, olives, and herbs; wrap in parchment; and bake.
- Thread shrimp on skewers with mushrooms, tomatoes, and chunks of zucchini, and grill.
- Turn canned salmon or tuna into sandwich spreads or dips.
- Add scallops or leftover cooked fish to pasta with peas, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and basil.
See Also Light & Quick Fish Entrées
4. Change your oil
Olive oil, the primary cooking and seasoning oil of the Mediterranean area, is known for its remarkable health benefits. It’s high in monounsaturated fats that protect against cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other diseases, and one study found that olive oil reduced the risk of death from all causes by 26 percent. Nuts, olives, and avocados are other good whole-food sources of monounsaturated fat.
To make your oil change easy:
- Add avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds to salads and sandwiches.
- Make your own homemade mayo with pastured eggs or silken tofu, olive oil, and lemon juice.
- Combine 1 part softened butter with 3 parts olive oil for a healthier spread for cooked pasta, vegetables, or bread.
- Use olive oil and balsamic vinegar in place of bottled salad dressing to slash sodium.
5. Eat fruit for dessert
It’s high in fiber, low in fat, and loaded with antioxidants. And studies show that eating whole fruit is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes. Another study found that apples and pears significantly reduced the risk of stroke. Serve fruit for dessert, or snack on it between meals instead of chips or cookies.
Some more sweet ideas:
- Drizzle blackberries with Greek yogurt and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.
- Poach pears in white wine, vanilla, star anise, and honey, and drizzle with crème fraiche.
- Toss grapefruit segments with pomegranate seeds, blood oranges, and pistachios.
- Serve a platter of grapes, sliced apples, and fresh figs with a selection of high-quality cheeses.
See Also Summer Fruit Crush
6. Garnish with dairy
Eating dairy has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. But we’re not talking about adding heavy layers of processed cheese to sandwiches and pasta: the traditional Mediterranean diet included cheese and yogurt from pastured sheep and goats, in reasonable amounts.
To get your cheese on mindfully:
- Use Greek yogurt mixed with herbs and garlic instead of mayonnaise or salad dressing.
- Add flavorful feta, Parmesan, or ricotta salata cheese to salads and sandwiches.
- Top casseroles, cooked vegetables, or frittatas with shaved Asiago or Manchego cheese.
7. Amp up seasonings
The traditional Mediterranean diet includes lots of garlic and herbs, with less reliance on salt than the typical American diet. Garlic is rich in compounds that lower cholesterol, support healthy immune function, and may protect against cancer. And herbs are high in antioxidants and other chemicals; parsley, for example, contains phenolic compounds and flavonoids that have been shown to have antibacterial, analgesic, brain protective, and other benefits.
To savor garlic and herbs:
- Combine garlic powder, onion powder, pepper, and dried herbs in a shaker, and use instead of salt.
- Roast whole heads of garlic and spread on bread instead of butter or oil.
- Add handfuls of basil and parsley to salads; stir minced herbs into soups and sauces, and garnish your meals liberally with chives or mint.
8. Eat less meat
The traditional diet of the Mediterranean coast didn’t include a lot of meat, often for religious reasons. Additionally, the meat used was pasture-raised and grass-fed, and thus higher in omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a compound that may reduce body fat, support immune function, and protect against cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Treat meat as a condiment, and eat only lean, organic, pasture-raised and/or grass-fed versions.
Some more meaty suggestions:
- Make legumes your main source of protein, and season them with small amounts of lamb cubes.
- Sauté strips of chicken with lots of vegetables, garlic, herbs, and olive oil.
- Layer a small portion of thinly sliced beef over a salad of arugula, spinach, and parsley, and sprinkle with feta cheese.
See Also Southern (Italian) Style
9. Eat pasta
It’s really okay: it’s made from a kind of wheat called durum that’s more slowly absorbed and is less likely to cause blood sugar spikes. Combining pasta with olive oil and high-fiber vegetables further slows absorption. Choose whole-grain versions (if you’re gluten-free, look for pasta made with legumes), skip the fatty cream sauces and handfuls of shredded cheese, and do your pasta the Mediterranean way:
- Toss linguini with olives, tomatoes, clams or shrimp, olive oil, and handfuls of basil and baby spinach.
- Purée white beans with garlic and olive oil, and toss with fusilli and green peas.
- Layer penne pasta with eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, and tomato sauce; sprinkle with cheese and bake as a casserole.
10. Make eating a social activity
Fast food was unheard of in traditional Mediterranean diets; so was eating alone, in the car, or at the computer. Typically, a home-cooked meal was shared with friends, eaten slowly, and enjoyed with a glass of wine—studies show that moderate consumption of red wine protects against cardiovascular and other diseases. And this relaxed, stress-free way of eating may be as responsible for the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet as the food itself.
To make your meals more social:
- Learn to cook a few basics: a vegetable frittata, a bean and vegetable stew, or a pasta and vegetable casserole are easy ways to make shareable meals.
- Invite friends over. Share a bottle of wine and relax with conversation.
- If you must eat alone, enjoy it. Sit at the table, turn off the television or computer, eat slowly, and savor every mouthful.