Getting Started With the Mediterranean Diet
- September 28, 2020
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Due to its variety of foods, flavors, and health benefits, the Mediterranean diet remains a popular option for healthy eating. You’ll build your meals around fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, olive oil, fish, and small amounts of yogurt and cheese.
Scientific studies have linked the Mediterranean diet to better health outcomes, like reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and even a longer lifespan.
While the many benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet are known, putting any dietary change into practice (and sticking to it) takes work and commitment. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though, and small changes can have big results over time. Here are a few simple tips to get started.
The Mediterranean diet does not specify calorie or macronutrient targets; rather it is an overall food pattern. For some people, taking this focus off calories and putting it back on food quality can be helpful for reducing meal-time stress.
If you are curious about your calorie needs, though, you can get an estimate of them using the calculator below. Calorie needs are based on many factors, including height, weight, gender, activity level, and genetics. You may find counting calories helpful if you’re trying to lose weight.
If you’d like to follow a Mediterranean diet within a calorie range, simply make food choices that align with the diet’s recommendations and that add up to your calorie goals. You can use online food journals to help you better track this.
You can also choose other unsweetened beverages, like coffee, tea, or seltzer. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages like soda or lemonade, with the exception of an occasional treat.
If you’re just getting started, you might want to plan a visit to the grocery store. As a reminder, here are the key Mediterranean diet foods you’ll want to stock your fridge and pantry with:
- Whole grains
- Beans and lentils
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Eggs (in moderation)
- Dairy (in moderation)
- Poultry (in moderation)
- Red wine (in moderation)
Next, consider implementing these tips to keep your kitchen Mediterranean-friendly:
Shop the frozen section
Remember that frozen foods (like produce and fish) can work well as cost-effective staples for your meals. For example, vegetables are typically frozen at the peak of freshness to ensure maximum nutrient retention. Pack your freezer with these and you’ll always have something healthy to prepare.
Avoid keeping too many sweet treats on hand
All foods can fit in a Mediterranean diet, but some foods, like red meat and added sugar, should only be consumed occasionally. If you’ve got a pantry full of sweet treats and waning willpower, it can be tough to stick to your goals. In this case, it might be worthwhile to get rid of some so you’re not tempted to snack on them daily.
Stock up on high-quality olive oil
Because you’ll use this as the primary oil for cooking and dressings, it’s wise to choose a high-quality version. Olive oil is rich in antioxidants and healthy, satiating fats.
“Olive oil is graded on taste, acidity level, and processing method,” says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN and Director of Nutrition for Oldways. “Extra virgin olive oils are naturally extracted with no heat or chemicals, have the most flavor, and have more of the antioxidants and micronutrients intact. Olive oil and ‘light’ olive, which are made with refined olive oil, still have a very healthy fatty acid profile, but may not have as many antioxidants or heat sensitive nutrients intact as extra virgin olive oil.”
Choose wisely when it comes to alcohol
You’ve got the green light to drink red wine in moderation on the Mediterranean diet—but only if it’s appropriate for your lifestyle and medical conditions.
Keep in mind that certain people should not drink alcohol, like pregnant women, those with alcohol addiction, or those who are on certain medications. Check with your doctor for individualized recommendations, and then decide whether to stock your kitchen with red wine.
Also, remember that moderation refers to one 5-ounce glass per day for women, and one to two 5-ounce glasses per day for men.
A wonderful part of the Mediterranean diet is the flexibility in planning your meals. There are no specific guidelines for calories or macros; instead you can flex your culinary creativity within the confines of the recommended foods.
Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE
When planning your breakfasts, try using the Oldways Breakfast 1-2-3 Plan. Inspired by Mediterranean breakfasts, it consolidates breakfast foods into three categories:
- Whole grains
- Fresh fruit or vegetables
- A source of protein (like eggs, nuts, or yogurt)
Here are some breakfast ideas that fit these parameters:
- Scrambled eggs with peppers, onions, and mushrooms, alongside a slice of whole wheat toast
- Greek yogurt topped with fruit and whole grain cereal
- Whole grain flatbread dipped in olive oil, alongside cheese, hummus, and vegetables
- Oatmeal with almond butter and a sliced apple
- Whole grain waffle with ricotta cheese and berries
Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE
There are endless possibilities for creating Mediterranean-friendly flavorful lunches and dinners! Simply remember the foods that are encouraged—like fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and olive oil—and build your meals around those.
Try these lunch or dinner ideas:
- Roasted salmon with wild rice and roasted broccoli
- Sautéed chicken with tomatoes, zucchini, and mushrooms, served over farro
- Spring baked pasta with asparagus and ricotta, served with a large salad
- Pan seared haddock with lemons and capers, served alongside quinoa and sautéed green beans
- Sardine patties with a dill yogurt sauce, served over greens
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN
You may end up not needing snacks. One of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet is that the higher fiber and fat content at meals helps you feel full. If you are hungry in between meals, though, enjoy one of these snack ideas:
- Fruit along with nuts/nut butter
- Vegetables with hummus, guacamole, or Greek yogurt based dip
- Hummus tuna cucumber bites
- Whole wheat pita dipped in olive oil seasoned with spices
- Small portions of lunch or dinner leftovers
Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD
When you’re following this diet, it’s OK to have a normal, sugar-filled dessert occasionally. But on most days, skip the added sugar and focus on a natural way to satisfy your sweet tooth with these dessert ideas:
Luckily, you don’t need any special kitchen equipment or fancy cooking skills to be able to prepare healthy meals on the Mediterranean diet. Here are a few helpful tips to set you up for success:
Learn to meal plan
If there’s one tip that will save you time, money, and frustration, it’s meal planning for the week! Spend time writing out your dinner ideas for the week and shop based on those ideas. This will ensure you have everything you need each week, and there’s no last-minute stress to worry about what you’re going to eat.
Leave extra time for whole grains
If you’re new to cooking with whole grains, know that they may take longer to prepare than refined grains. For example, brown rice takes a bit longer to cook than white rice. Build a little extra time into your meal prep, or search for convenient short-cuts (like instant brown rice or prepared whole wheat flatbread).
If you have time on the weekends, consider chopping up some of your vegetables in advance to make weekday meal prep faster. Or, you can try batch cooking on the weekend, where you prepare several meals in advance to choose from throughout the week.
Whether you’re embarking on the Mediterranean diet to reduce disease risk, lose weight, or simply for overall wellness, this eating pattern is full of delicious meals to keep you motivated on your journey to healthier eating.
Remember, though, the Mediterranean lifestyle also hinges on daily physical activity and positive social interactions, so don’t forget to include these aspects as well.
While there’s no one diet that fits every lifestyle, this is one that many people will find value and success in following. With all the flavor, variety, and health benefits, it’s no surprise people in the Mediterranean have been eating this way for centuries.