While you may not be able to jet off on a sunny Mediterranean vacation right now, you can start eating as if you were there.
Research consistently shows that consuming a Mediterranean-style diet filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seafood and heart-healthy fats can help to reduce the risk of strokes and total cardiovascular disease, including heart disease. It may also help in the prevention of type II diabetes. In fact, year after year, it is named the top diet by leading weight-loss analysts at U.S. News & World Report and our own Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab dietitians.
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What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet originated from the dining habits of those who live in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece, Italy, Spain and France. It does not involve any strict rules or restrictions, but instead emphasizes healthy fats and plant-based recipes with a moderate amount of dairy and minimal amounts of red meat, processed foods and added sugar.
More of a lifestyle approach than a restrictive weight-loss plan, this balanced and sustainable way of eating does not require you to meticulously track calories or eliminate any of your favorite foods or beverages (red wine included!). In addition to encouraging healthy eating, the Mediterranean diet also emphasizes incorporating daily physical activity into your routine.
Mediterranean diet health benefits
Long recognized for its potential health benefits, scientific evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet is anti-inflammatory and can help maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, as well as support good gut bacteria. The Mediterranean diet gained momentum in 2013 after a team of researchers at the University of Barcelona studied more than 7,000 participants and documented drastic improvements in their heart health. A more recent study also found that elderly individuals may vastly improve brain function and their own longevity by adopting the Mediterranean diet.
Health benefits related to the Mediterranean lifestyle may include:
- Reduced risk of heart disease. Heart-healthy, omega-3 rich fish is emphasized over red meat, which is higher in saturated fat. According to the American Heart Association, consuming fish at least twice a week can decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Additionally, low-sodium diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, can help to prevent and/or control high blood pressure.
- Reduced risk of stroke. the Mediterranean diet may help to reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol, which is associated with an increased risk of a stroke. The diet encourages healthy fats, such as olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fat and associated with lowering bad cholesterol (LDL). The diet discourages consuming saturated fats, such as butter and margarine, which can raise LDL.
- Decreased risk of type II diabetes. Research shows that following the Mediterranean diet can be helpful in preventing and managing type II diabetes because it may improve insulin sensitivity and overall gut bacteria, due to being high in fiber and anti-inflammatory foods and lower in added sugars, refined grains and non-starchy vegetables.
- Cognitive decline prevention. The diet emphasizes eating plant-based foods that are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, such as vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits. According to certain studies, following this type of diet may also slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and can help to reduce the risk of dementia.
- Weight management. A recent study found that following the Mediterranean diet may lead to a reduced risk of obesity and may help prevent weight gain and reduce the risk of increased weight circumference.
- Reduced risk of overall mortality. Studies show that overall mortality risk is decreased when the Mediterranean diet is combined with physical activity.
Mediterranean diet top food list
Any worthwhile diet program will emphasize whole grains, fresh produce, lean protein and heart-healthy unsaturated fats. This diet is no different, but you’ll also find that those following a typical Mediterranean eating plan enjoy plenty of fatty fish (especially salmon recipes) and generous servings of legumes, nuts and seeds. To help you get started, here is a list of foods to consider eating on the Mediterranean diet — you can use the categories here as a blueprint for grocery shopping, to help you stay on track.
- Vegetables: artichokes, arugula, avocado, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, leafy greens, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potato, turnips, zucchini
- Fruits: apples, apricots, cherries, clementines, dates, figs, grapefruit, melons, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, pomegranates, strawberries, tangerines
- Legumes, nuts and grains: almonds, barley, buckwheat, bulgur wheat, cannellini beans, chickpeas, couscous, farro, fava beans, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, oats, orzo, pine nuts, pistachios, quinoa, walnuts
- Healthy fats and vinegars: apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar
- Herbs and spices: allspice, basil, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, crushed red pepper flakes, cumin, dill weed, garlic powder, mint, nutmeg, onion powder, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, smoked paprika, sumac, thyme, turmeric, za’atar
- Other essentials: olives, sesame seeds, tahini
Eat in moderation
- Dairy and cheese: feta, goat and sheep cheeses, Manchego, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, yogurt, eggs
- Seafood and meat: chicken, fish, shellfish, red meat (lean cuts)
- Stay hydrated by sipping on calorie-free beverages like water, seltzer, unsweetened tea and black coffee.
- The occasional glass of dry red or white wine is also encouraged.
Your 7-day Mediterranean diet meal plan
The registered dietitians at the GH Institute Nutrition Lab have made it easy to follow the Mediterranean diet by putting together this sample 7-day meal plan that emphasizes real, whole foods and limits ultra-processed ones, which tend to be higher in sodium, saturated fat and added sugar.
With these simple recipes, there’s no calorie-counting or restrictive portion sizes. You can fill up on tons of veggies, fruits, whole grains and beans; enjoy lean proteins such as seafood, chicken and eggs; and indulge in sweets and alcohol.
Since a typical Mediterranean diet prioritizes the enjoyment of the dining experience, flavorful ingredients are at the forefront of these heart-healthy recipes, so you’ll never feel deprived. Here’s how to get started on the Mediterranean diet, with nutritionist-approved ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Editor’s note: Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on this diet, we invite you gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture. While the Mediterranean diet enjoys a rare level of widespread support from dietary experts, it’s always best to consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new eating plan.