The Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest in the world. Here are 12 easy ways you can get started on adopting the Mediterranean Diet today!
Working as a Dietitian, it’s no surprise that people often ask me about the healthiest way to eat.
In the science of nutrition, there are very rarely any black and white answers. It surprises some, disappoints others, and yet delights others when they hear my answer:
“The absolute BEST diet is one that you enjoy, one that meets your nutritional needs, and one that you can envision yourself eating the rest of your life.”
[x_pullquote cite=”Jessica Penner, BSc, RD” type=”left”]”The absolute BEST diet is one that you enjoy, one that meets your nutritional needs, and one that you can envision yourself eating the rest of your life.”[/x_pullquote]
That’s on an individual level. So while a few people can happily eat a keto diet forever, most people I know want the freedom to be able to enjoy a banana. The same applies to other restrictive diets. There will always be a few fanatics that truly enjoy these diets, but most people don’t actively enjoy restricting their food choices.
So if people are looking for a specific diet recommendation, I recommend one that I find the most accessible for North American palettes: the Mediterranean Diet.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The traditional Mediterranean Diet is based on the food habits of people in the Mediterranean region for centuries, up to the middle of the 20th century. In short, it’s a predominantly plant-based diet that includes moderate amounts of fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy, with olive oil as its main source of added fat.
Let’s look at how the Mediterranean Diet meets my three point criteria for a healthy diet:
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on enjoyment. The number one driver of food decisions is taste! While factors such as convenience, price, and healthfulness are also important, taste is king! If someone doesn’t enjoy a food, they’re not going to eat it. The Mediterranean Diet way of eating celebrates the joy of food and traditional foods are highly palatable and flavourful!
The Mediterranean Diet is nutritionally complete and prevents disease. All the components of the diet – plenty of veggies, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, and olive oil – work together to provide all the nutrients you need. They also help keep chronic inflammation, which causes chronic diseases, at bay.
The Mediterranean Diet is sustainable. There isn’t one single food or whole food group that’s eliminated on this diet. A lot of people find it really difficult to follow diets that cut out key foods or food groups. Since there are very few restrictions, people find they can eat this way their whole lives.
Is _____ food really part of the Mediterranean Diet?
You’ll notice that I’m focusing on the principles behind the Mediterranean Diet and not the EXACT foods eaten in this part of the world. We can learn from this healthy pattern of eating and apply the same principles to foods from around the world.
- tofu is traditional to Asia, but it’s a great PLANT based protein
- chia seeds are traditional to South America, but they are a good source of HEALTHY FATS
So you can adopt the Mediterranean Diet without having to feel restricted if you want to have some Vietnamese, Mexican, or any other ethnic cuisine, for that matter.
How to Start Eating the Mediterranean Diet
With the Mediterranean Diet you don’t need to overhaul everything you eat at once. You can take it step by step. In fact, I always recommend to make diet changes slowly. This results in life-long changes rather than spurts of extreme change that don’t last. Once you achieve success by making one change, you will be encouraged and motivated to make another one! Small changes are KEY to being successful!
Step 1: Take this quiz to see whether your current eating habits fall in line with the principles behind the Mediterranean Diet.
Step 2: Watch the video below or keep scrolling to read the 12 main principles of the Mediterranean Diet and decide which ones you want to work on!
12 Principles of the Mediterranean Diet
Load up on the herbs and spices. These have anti-inflammatory benefits and provide a lot of flavour, so you can go easy on the salt shaker. Spices and herbs (both fresh and dried) are healthy. Try adding extra to foods you might not think about adding them to, such as scrambled eggs or oatmeal.
Throw in an extra onion and garlic clove… or two… These are both good for gut health, and are anti-inflammatory. You’ll notice that my recipes almost ALWAYS start with sautéd onion and garlic. I have never come across a recipe that didn’t benefit from this step.
Onions and garlics are part of a group of plants called the aromatics. They add so much flavour to a dish! You really can’t go wrong with doubling these in a recipe, or adding them to one that hasn’t included them.
Fish Friday and Seafood Sunday. Aim to eat fish or seafood at least twice a week. These are important sources of healthy essential fats called omega 3 fatty acids. They’re needed for brain and heart health, and are anti-inflammatory as well! They’re also a terrific source of protein and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, and iron.
Treat your dairy with contempt…. umm I mean ferment! Choose fermented dairy (such as yogurt, kefir, and cheese) more often than fresh milk. Fermented dairy is naturally lower in lactose (which some people have a limited ability to digest), and contain gut healthy bacteria. When buying yogurt, look for ones that state on the label that they contain live active cultures. Better yet? Choose one with less or no sugar.
Learn to love legumes. Legumes are a great source of lean protein, fibre, and minerals. “What is a legume?” you might ask… and that’s a good question. Legumes are pod plants, and include beans such as kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and peanuts. Opt for a completely plant-based meal on Meatless Monday. Or ease your way into it by adding legumes to meat dishes such as this Skinny Taco Meat, or this Stick-To-Your-Noodles Pasta Sauce.
Fruit and veggie on the heavy. Include plenty of fruits and veggies at every meal. Aim to fill half your plate or bowl with produce. These are low in calories, and have vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Plants are a core tenet of the Mediterranean Diet.
Ditch the fear of fat. Include healthy sources of plant-based fat such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados everyday. Your body needs fat to make hormones, cell walls, and protect your organs… to name just a few functions! Fat also makes food more enjoyable, and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Whole grain is the name of the game. These are a great source of complex carbohydrates, micronutrients, and fibre. Try barley, farro, quinoa, or wild rice for something different. The Whole Grains Council has a list of 22 varieties.
Wine and dine. Enjoy a glass of wine with a meal. This habit has been correlated with great cardiovascular health. It’s important to note though that there’s no need to start drinking if you are currently an abstainer.
Poultry and egg on the reg…. ular. Aim to eat these a couple times a week. These are great sources of lean protein and micronutrients.
Very vinegar. Including vinegar with carbohydrates helps the body to digest and absorb food more slowly. Start your meal off with a salad tossed in a vinaigrette dressing, or add a touch of balsamic vinegar to sparkling water. But beware of fantastical health claims about vinegar. I’m sorry if I’m bursting somebody’s bubble, but it’s not a miracle cure for every ailment.
Go easy on the meats, treats, and sweets. I’ve focused the first 11 points on what to add TO your diet… not on what to take away. The hallmark of a healthy diet is what you ARE eating, not what you aren’t. However, what you’ll notice in the Mediterranean Diet is that they only eat red meat, fried food, and sweets on occasion. These can still be wonderfully enjoyed as part of the overall diet, but they don’t form its base!
It’s ridiculously easy to start the Mediterranean Diet today!
If you’re thinking about trying the Mediterranean Diet, just start by giving one of these principles a try! If you’re looking for some recipes that fit the description, here are a bunch to get you started!
- Mediterranean Quinoa and Lentils
- Turmeric Falafel Bowl
- Buffalo Chicken Quinoa (stovetop and Instant Pot)
- Feta Beet Salad
- Mediterranean Layer Dip
- Ratatouille Baked Eggs
- Orange Sesame Chicken Salad
- Quinoa Stuffed Pizza Peppers
Which of these principles are you already following? Which ones do you think you want to start doing? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear!