What Is the Mediterranean Diet and What Can You Eat On It?

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Mary Sauer

CONTRIBUTOR

For the third year in a row, the Mediterranean diet has earned the rank of No. 1 diet from U.S. News and World Report, winning praise from experts for its proven health benefits—particularly heart health—and potential for long-term lifestyle change. While many diets are restrictive, making certain food groups off-limits, following a Mediterranean eating plan allows for individuals to eat a variety of foods and doesn’t encourage calorie restriction.

Often associated with olive oil and salmon, this is a diet that actually embraces many different kinds of foods while providing a shortlist of foods to avoid eating on a daily basis. You’ve probably heard your friends and family, or maybe even your doctor talking about the Mediterranean diet. Whether your goal for changing the way you eat it lowering blood pressure, increasing energy, or losing weight, here is what you need to know about adopting a Mediterranean diet.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

Our deep dive into the Mediterranean diet begins with a geography lesson. The name of the diet refers to its origin in the Mediterranean Basin, or the land that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea. Historically, this is an area of the world that has been associated with certain patterns of eating, which includes fish, bread, wine, and oil, and very little meat, according to the Iranian Journal of Public Health.While different eating patterns emerged, this basic diet of bread, wine, and oil spread throughout Europe thanks to its adoption by Christian monks.

Over time, this diet has evolved to include fruits and vegetables as major components. Even though it has ancient roots, it became the subject of research in the second half of the 20th century when Ancel Keys conducted a famous study of health habits and cardiovascular health on all seven continents.

Related: Michael Psilakis Busts Myths About Mediterranean Cooking in Live to Eat

What are the benefits of a Mediterranean diet?

Perhaps the most well-known health benefit of following a Mediterranean diet is reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. In 2015, researchers conducted a large study involving 7447 individuals who were considered to be at high risk for cardiovascular disease, according to Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.Those who adopted a Mediterranean diet, some with the addition of extra nuts and others with the addition of extra virgin olive oil, all showed to experience fewer cardiovascular events over the course of the study when compared to their cohorts.

Additionally, the participants who adopted this diet were observed to have lower blood pressure, reduced insulin sensitivity, reduced inflammation, and reduced oxidative stress. All around, consistent use of this diet, without the restriction of calorie intake, has health benefits for the whole body.

Is the Mediterranean diet good for weight loss?

The primary benefit of the Mediterranean diet is heart health. However, it does contain far less saturated fat and sugars than most Americans’ typical diet, and emphasizes fruits, vegetables and legumes over meat and dairy. If your diet is already fairly low in fat and sugar, you may not see as many weight loss benefits as someone who is making a more drastic change. The Mediterranean diet is a fantastic foundational eating plan, though, so if you use it for a starting point, then keep an eye on your overall calorie intake, it can be an excellent way to lose weight.

Is the Mediterranean diet safe?

While some diets encourage restriction of calories or prohibit certain foods, this isn’t the case with the Mediterranean Diet. Instead, it is a fairly well-rounded nutritional plan that is safe because of how it approaches healthy eating. Lowered calorie intake or extreme restriction can put individuals at risk for disorder eating patterns. The great thing about the Mediterranean diet is that is generally focused on what you can eat, not what you can’t eat. It also doesn’t require you to eat very little or count calories.

Additionally, this diet includes foods known to be associated with heart health. While a diet like keto encourages increased intake of fat, this is a diet the embraces all food groups in moderation but limits saturated fats, meats, and processed grains.

The only risk worth noting is associated with an increased intake of wine. Even though red wine is embraced by proponents of the Mediterranean diet, it generally isn’t recommended that people increase their alcohol intake in hopes of improving their health. While many people might be able to safely navigate the addition of a daily glass of wine, others may not be able to practice moderation, as pointed out by Time.

What are the best foods for a Mediterranean diet plan?

If you’re interested in giving the Mediterranean diet a try, here are the foods you want to stock up on before getting started:

Fruits and vegetables

Produce is central to any healthy diet, so it is no surprise that this eating plan encourages plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Whole grains

Carb lovers, we have good news for you. Grains like rice, pasta, oatmeal, and whole-grain bread are part of daily eating.

Healthy fats

Olive oil is an iconic part of this diet because it is an unsaturated fat. It is encouraged in place of butter or other saturated fats. Nuts are another source of healthy fat encouraged on the Mediterranean diet.

Seafood

This diet is limited in meat but encourages seafood twice a week as a source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

Red wine

Followers of the Mediterranean diet are encouraged to drink a glass of red wine a day, but should proceed with caution.

Legumes

As a diet that emphasizes treating plants as a major source of nutrients and calories, it may not be surprising the legumes are a big part of following the Mediterranean way of eating. Lentils, cannellini beans, and garbanzo beans are all great additions to your shopping cart.

Related: 15 Ways to Get Your Five Servings of Vegetables a Day

Mediterranean diet food list

Here’s a partial list of staple foods on the Mediterranean diet to get you started.

Eggs

Chicken

Sardines

Cod

Shrimp

Olive oil

Tomatoes

Lentils

White beans

Whole-grain bread

Pita bread

Couscous

Olives

Pistachios

Almonds

Walnuts

Yogurt

Hummus

Cantaloupe

Lemons

Figs

Oranges

Spinach

Zucchini

Eggplant

Onions

Green beans

Cauliflower

Honey

Feta cheese

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