The term “Mediterranean diet” was coined back in the 1960s, when a scientific study looked at the eating patterns of a variety of countries. The Mediterranean diet is a combination of dietary habits and cultural traditions that arose in countries like Greece, Southern Italy, Spain, and Crete, and can be considered a lifestyle.
The Mediterranean lifestyle values the following foods and habits:
- Eating seasonal, fresh, and unprocessed foods
- At least half an hour of exercise daily
- Plenty of rest and ensuring to decrease stress
- Sharing food with family and friends and staying social
- Drinking plenty of water
So, what foods make up a Mediterranean diet?
The basics of the diet
You can think of the foods that are included in this diet as a pyramid, with different sections containing different foods groups. The sections closer to the base of the pyramid are foods that are eaten more often, while the sections at the tip are foods that are rarely eaten.
The base of the pyramid is made up of fruits and vegetables, of which about two servings should be consumed with every meal. These can be eaten cooked or raw but need to be seasonal and varied in their colors. Alongside fruit and vegetables, whole grain cereals and breads are also grouped at the base. Whole grain bread, pasta, and cereals like couscous and rice therefore are incorporated into every meal.
The final ingredient of the base is olive oil, which is used for both cooking and for dressing salads. Extra virgin olive oil is the major contributor of fats to this diet. It contains polyunsaturated fats, alongside compounds that have antioxidative properties.
The next layer of the pyramid contains nuts, seeds, and the herbs and ingredients that add a variety of flavors to meals. These help with decreasing the amount of salt that goes into cooking. Together with dairy products, such as yoghurt and cheese, these foods are consumed every day. Low-fat dairy products are preferred, and cheese is usually eaten together with salads.
The next layer is mainly made up of proteins such as white meat, fish and seafood, eggs, and legumes. These foods are eaten weekly, with two servings of each. Eggs can be eaten up to four times a week, and legumes can be eaten more frequently if desired.
The final layers contain foods to eat in moderation, which include red and processed meats, like salami, and potatoes and sweets. These should all be consumed less than twice a week.
Alcoholic beverages can be consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet. These should be enjoyed with a meal and in moderation, with the recommended amount being a glass per day for women and two glasses for men. Other alcoholic drinks, like beer and liquor are typically not consumed.
It’s important to note though, that the Mediterranean diet does not provide much information regarding recommended caloric intake or portion sizes. Therefore, as with any diet, aim for moderate amounts that fit your lifestyle and your caloric needs.
Bountiful benefits – what the diet can do for health
Having cleared up what foods the Mediterranean diet operates with, you might be curious about what this diet and lifestyle can offer your health. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet can be useful in managing weight, improving heart health, supporting brain function, and assisting in graceful ageing. That’s likely because it contains high amounts of fiber, antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, which are compounds naturally found in plants.
- Keeping the heart healthy. The Mediterranean diet has undergone multiple large-scale trials that have suggested that it can promote heart health and reduce incidence of heart disease. It is likely that this effect occurs due to the decrease in inflammation and the antioxidative effect the foods included in the diet.
- Promoting a healthy weight. The Mediterranean diet can prevent weight gain, as it encourages us to eat a diverse set of foods and limit high-calorie options. This diet can successfully be used as a tool to lose weight and has been shown effective in helping to keep the weight off once you’ve lost it.
- Keeping the brain healthy. Following a Mediterranean diet can help prevent incidences of neurodegenerative disease with ageing. It is likely that the beneficial effect is due to the high intake of unsaturated fatty acids, omega-3s from seafood and polyphenols from olive oil.
- Supporting ageing. The diet increases the amount of foods that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties, and has been shown effective at promoting healthy ageing in multiple trials. The diet improves blood fat profile and helps with preserving the diversity of the gut microbiome.
If you’re looking for inspiration, here is a suggestion of what a day on this diet may look like:
- Cinnamon overnight oats, top with honey, fruit or nuts to taste
- A cup of greek yoghurt with some berries or a serving of nuts like walnuts
- Sweet potato and bean salad with wholegrain toast.
- A portion of fruit, such as an apple or pear, or a protein-rich snack like a cup of edamame.
- Creamy tomato salmon or couscous stuffed eggplant (veg)
- Snack 2