Mediterranean diet: What to eat, health benefits and sample meal plan
- September 23, 2020
You’ve no doubt heard of its many benefits, but how do you follow the Mediterranean diet? This sample meal plan will help get you started.
The Mediterranean diet is often touted as one of the best approaches to eating, credited with everything from increasing longevity to boosting heart and brain health.
It’s also said to be one of the easiest eating patterns to follow.
How to follow the Mediterranean diet
While there are variations, the traditional Greek-Cretan diet on which most research is based is largely plant-based and semi-vegetarian, says Antigone Kouris, a pioneering researcher into the Mediterranean diet at La Trobe University.
- It is rich in legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, vegetables, fruit, olives, olive oil, herbs, some spices and alcohol, and low in animal foods.
- Fruits and vegetables are key, with the daily intake being a plate of veggies and at least two serves of fruit a day.
- Consume plenty of dark, leafy green vegetables such as as endive, chicory, mustard greens, spinach, beetroot greens, silverbeet and vine leaves.
- Legumes are generally eaten in place of meat or fish twice a week.
- Red meat, pork and chicken is only eaten once to twice a week; fish and seafood is eaten once a week and eggs less than four times a week.
- Sourdough bread is consumed daily and there are only moderate amounts of rice and low amounts of pasta.
- Fermented probiotic foods are also an integral part of the diet with olives, yoghurt and feta cheese consumed almost daily.
- About three tablespoons of olive oil are used daily, in everything from cooking to dressings in salads.
- Meals largely comprise stews and soups, and less often grilling, roasting, barbecuing or frying.
Why the Mediterranean diet is easy to follow
Recent research from the University of Otago compared weight loss and health benefits of the Mediterranean, intermittent fasting and paleo diets.
It found not only did the Mediterranean diet offer significant long-term health benefits, but that it was also the easiest eating plan to stick to.
Study participants were asked to choose one of the three diets to follow in their everyday lives.
A year later, 57 per cent of those on the Mediterranean diet were still following it, compared with 54 per cent on the fasting diet and 35 per cent on the paleo diet.
“The diet does not exclude any foods and allows the consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods, which many people enjoy eating and do not want to avoid,” Prof Kouris says.
“The cuisine relies on simple flavours based on herbs and olive oil, resulting in dishes that are light and fresh tasting.”
Dietitian Simone Austin says the Mediterranean diet is also an inexpensive, practical diet to follow.
“It’s achievable for most people in that we’ve got access to these foods (used in the Mediterranean diet). They’re not things that you have to (go out of your way to) look for,” says Simone, of the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
Prof Kouris says the Mediterranean diet is considered to be a strong anti-inflammatory diet “protecting the body against low grade systemic inflammation, which is now considered to be the precursor to most chronic diseases”. These include diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer and kidney disease.
University of Minnesota Medical School research found the fats in olive oil, when coupled with fasting and exercise, may help increase lifespan and prevent age-related diseases.
Legumes, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, fruit, olives and olive oil improve the gut microbiome, says Prof Kouris.
Simone says the plentiful fibre in the Mediterranean diet also helps gut bacteria ferment food, producing gases that help keep the gut cells healthy.
A traditional Mediterranean diet meal plan
Want to follow the diet yourself? Here’s a snapshot of a day on the traditional Mediterranean diet:
Breakfast: Small meal, often eaten mid-morning
- Barley rusk (paximadi) with white cheese (ricotta or feta) and honey
- Sourdough wholegrain bread with olive oil, olives, white cheese and tomato
- Greek strained sheep yoghurt with honey and walnuts
- Filo pie with feta cheese/spinach/leafy greens (called Kaltsounia)
- Greek coffee or herbal tea with breakfast
Lunch: Main meal of the day
- Lamb or pork stewed with leafy greens, leeks and potatoes or rice, or mince meat with pasta
- Roast or stewed chicken with potatoes and vegies
- Fish (especially sardines) often baked or fried and served with boiled leafy greens or salad
- Stewed vegie dish (called ladera) cooked in tomato salsa and sometimes rice or potato is added. Examples of this include stuffed vegetables with herbs and rice; Cabbage rolls with rice/mince meat; ratatouille with eggplant (called briam); Spinach risotto (called spanakoriso); leek risotto (called prasorizo); stewed okra and stewed green beans and carrots.
- Legume-based soups, stews and salads such as lentil soup, chickpea soup, chickpeas in tomato salsa, haricot bean soup, black eye peas with silverbeet, boiled bean salad
Afternoon tea: Small snack
- Greek coffee with a rusk or olive oil biscuit
- Nuts, pumpkin seeds, roasted chickpeas and dried fruit
- Fresh fruit
Dinner: Smaller meal
- Smaller portions of lunch leftovers
- Yoghurt with walnuts or fruit
- Rusk or bread with cheese and olives and salad
- Eggs cooked in tomatoes
Note: Meals contain quite a lot of olive oil; they are accompanied by sourdough bread, feta, olives and salads (using whatever vegetables are in season) or boiled vegetable salads (these can include wild leafy chicory, beetroot, broccoli and zucchini).
One to two standard glasses of wine may be drunk with meal or a spirit after the meal.
Mediterranean diet-style recipes to try
Written by Tania Gomez