The Mediterranean diet is one of the most tried-and-true diets out there, with its first mention in the 50s and 60s after a study found that it could help improve heart health. This year, it topped a list of best diet for overall health, and it’s not the first time (it’s actually the third).
The diet emphasizes healthy, whole foods that bring nutritional value, without imposing too many serious rules for what you can (or can’t) eat.
We rounded up some of our top tips for planning and adopting a Mediterranean diet so that you can get all its disease-busting, inflammation-fighting, health benefits for yourself.
1. This is really more than just a diet.
The lifestyle of the regions is important, too, and that means exercise. But don’t assume this means early morning spin classes or marathon training. People living in the countries that inspired this diet walk more than we do, in general. Try swapping out a leg of your commute, or schedule in a walk during your lunch break.
Another key component of the lifestyle? Spending time with family and friends. Studies have shown the health benefits of this habit, and it’s common practice in the Blue Zones, where people live longest. There’s two of these zones along the Mediterranean (Sardinia, Italy & Icaria, Greece), but spending time with the people who matter is a common thread among more than just those communities.
2. There’s less limits, so it may be easier to follow.
The diet ranked #1 for Easiest Diets to Follow this year, and it has a lot to do with the diet’s loose rules and personalization options. Unlike other popular diets, like keto or Whole30, you don’t have to cut out any food groups, and you can chose the things you like to eat.
If you’re looking for a simple diet to try with max payoff for overall health, this is a really good option. It encourages eating more whole foods, vegetables, and healthy fats. Some of our favorite recipes actually make up a pretty good dinner party menu, too.
3. Choose fruits and vegetables that pack in antioxidants.
Some of the key antioxidants for health include glutathione, resveratrol, and pterostilbene. Foods rich in glutathione include garlic, onions, spinach, and cruciferous vegetables. And yes, resveratrol can be found in red wine. However it can also be found in fruits like blueberries & raspberries and peanuts. Pterostilbene is similar to resveratrol, and has similar benefits, but is less well known. It’s found in similar sources, like berries.
There’s other antioxidants that are just as important, and overall getting antioxidants in your diet can be accomplished by eating colorful fruits and vegetables and cooking with more herbs, like basil, mint, and oregano.
4. Get to know your olive oil.
It turns out, all olive oil isn’t created equal. If you’re looking to get the health benefits of this superfood, you need to be careful when shopping. You should always be shopping for extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, which means the oil is made from one type of olive. You also want oil made from either Greek Koroneiki, Italian Moraiolo, or Spanish Picual olives.
It also matters when you buy your olive oil. According to our podcast with Chef Ryan Hardy, “The level of those polyphenols is at its highest when it’s harvested, and then it quickly drops down.” You also lose flavor as your oil ages, so look at the label more carefully next time you’re stocking up.
5. Emphasize those healthy fats (especially the omegas).
Like other popular diets, the mediterranean diet doesn’t buy into the low-fat diet trends of old. There’s actually tons of reasons your body needs fats for your health, but the key is making sure you’re picking healthy ones.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a crucial part of the Mediterranean diet, among other fats. They’ve been proven to benefit brain health and fight inflammation (among other benefits), and can be found in supplements like fish oil or flaxseed oil as well as in fish, nuts, and seeds.
6. If you’re going to eat meat, focus on lean meats & fish.
And if you can go for clean meats, even better. Clean meats include things like organic chicken and wild or sustainably caught fish. A new trend, the Med-pork diet, offers the same cognitive benefits of the original, at least, so if just chicken and fish isn’t enough you can consider adding some pork products back to your diet.
7. Vegans & vegetarians, rejoice! A plant-based mediterranean diet is totally doable.
Unlike the original keto diet (which needed an update to become more plant-based friendly), this diet is ready to go for our plant-based people. It already emphasises fruits and vegetables along with good plant-based protein sources like beans and nuts. It should be too complicated to work out a meatless version that will work for you.
8. The more wholesome, the better.
If you’ve been wondering how pasta, the quintessential italian food, fit into this diet, don’t worry: it does. While it’s best to prioritize whole grain options, there’s also some great grain-free options if you’re looking to eliminate more grains.
Other great power-grains to incorporate include polenta, rice, bulgar wheat, quinoa, millet, and oats.
9. This is what’s up with wine.
Some red wine is allowed, and even advised, as a part of a complete mediterranean diet. It’s important to know that it’s only in moderation that it’s advised, and that moderation is anywhere from 1 to 2 glasses, depending on the person.
The world is wine is complicated, to say the least. If you’re looking for the most health benefits while enjoying a glass, you can dive into the details, but some of the more common labels include “USDA Organic,” which means the wine you’re drinking is fully organic, and “Made with organic grapes” which just means the grapes were organic before the processing started.
10. Dairy is definitely allowed (but in moderation).
You want to look to get around 2-3 servings of dairy per week, according to Bindiya Gandhi, M.D.. You should also be selective about what dairy you’re eating (ice cream and milk probably don’t make the cut). Fermented products like yogurt, especially greek yogurt, and cheeses like feta, parmesan and ricotta, are some of the best options.
11. You can even eat dessert.
While the diet does cut out processed foods and sugars, it doesn’t limit your intake of fruits which can help fill in the gap when sugar cravings hit. Berries in particular are a good option, since they also pack the antioxidants that help get you the benefits of mediterranean eating.
Even if you don’t commit completely to following the mediterranean diet, it’s easy to take inspiration from this anti-inflammatory, gut-friendly, brain-boosting diet and to add more of the many beneficial foods it highlights to your diet. If you are thinking about diving in, here’s a grocery list to get you started and make sure you’ve got everything you need to eat like they do on the Mediterranean Sea, and check out the meal plan (and all the benefits of the diet) highlighted here.