Most people have heard of standard diets like the Atkins diet or the Weight Watchers diet. These diets can get results when used correctly, but they’re not right for everyone. In particular, these diets may not be the best choice for people who have trouble following a specific diet routine or feel constrained by these diets’ relatively strict nature.
However, there’s one particular kind of diet out there that has stood the test of time in ways many others haven’t. It’s called the Mediterranean diet, and it’s been shown time and again to offer great results in areas ranging from protecting the heart to preventing diabetes. Importantly, it’s also a less restrictive and more free-form diet than many others.
What is the Mediterranean diet, and could it be right for you? Here’s the quick primer you need on understanding the Mediterranean diet and how you can incorporate it into your life.
Mediterranean Diet at a Glance
The Mediterranean diet isn’t really a diet in the same sense as many of today’s diets are. It’s more accurate to describe it as a set of eating patterns based on what people in countries around the Mediterranean Sea ate in the mid-20th century, specifically in countries like Spain, Italy and Greece.
What’s so special about what those people ate, anyway? Well, scientists noticed that many people in these countries had exceptionally long lives, and they experienced health problems like heart attacks and strokes less often. They connected that with the diet common to the area: fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, olives, fish and red wine.
At its most basic level, the Mediterranean diet orients your eating toward whole, fresh, plant-based foods, with a heavy focus on fruits, vegetables and healthy fats as the staple elements of every meal. Animal proteins like eggs, cheese and milk are daily or semi-daily additions, while white meats like fish or chicken generally show up two to four times per week.
What’s not a big part of the Mediterranean diet? Red meat is an occasional treat, usually eaten once or twice a week or less. The diet eliminates processed fats and added sugars as much as possible — a little is better than a lot, and none is best of all. Finally, unlike many diets, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t totally eliminate alcohol; it allows you to drink some red wine in moderation.
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is among the most well-studied diets, and there’s strong scientific evidence for its effectiveness. Some of the biggest suspected benefits include:
- Helping people lose weight effectively without extreme dietary restrictions
- Lowering cardiovascular disease risk, especially in people at high risk for it
- Preventing the development of type 2 diabetes and helping to manage blood sugar in people with diabetes
- Reducing high blood pressure and its associated health risks
- Slowing the effects of aging by providing the body with a rich supply of antioxidants
None of these effects are unique to the Mediterranean diet. Each one results from a dietary practice that we know is effective, such as eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. But the Mediterranean diet is greater than the sum of its parts. The cumulative effect of combining its many healthy practices is probably an important factor in creating the benefits we see.
What’s for Dinner in the Mediterranean Diet?
Let’s get more specific about what foods you can expect to be eating in the Mediterranean diet. Here are some common dishes that, when prepared correctly, are staples of the Mediterranean eating style:
- Garden salads with oil and vinegar-based dressings
- Hummus or baba ghanoush
- Chicken or shrimp in white wine sauce
- Grilled salmon with rice and veggies
- Mushroom Bolognese
- Shrimp pasta
- Chicken cacciatore with onions, herbs and tomatoes
If you’re not a pro chef, don’t worry. Many Mediterranean recipes are relatively simple and have only a few ingredients — another hallmark of the whole food-oriented style of this diet. Mediterranean meal delivery services are also a great option since they provide you with all of the ingredients you need in one place, delivered to you.
Making the Mediterranean Diet Work for You
One of the great things about the Mediterranean diet is how many different ways you can do it. As previously noted, there’s no one master plan for going Mediterranean. Instead, it’s about shifting your eating habits in a way that makes sense for your lifestyle.
Although it’s not usually a vegan or vegetarian diet, the Mediterranean diet still puts plant-based foods front and center. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian or want to become one, the Mediterranean diet is very easy to incorporate into either of those plant-based lifestyles. It’s especially a good choice if you’re curious about the lifestyle but not ready to jump in — try starting small by phasing out red meat, for example.
The Mediterranean diet’s reliance on fresh foods does mean that it often requires more frequent grocery shopping than other diets. As previously mentioned, if you want to save yourself time and effort, there are Mediterranean diet meal delivery services that will ship pre-portioned ingredients for a Mediterranean meal to your home. The nutritious nature of Mediterranean meals also makes them perfect for taking to work. A healthy meal will keep you going stronger throughout the day than a quick shot of refined carbs or saturated fats.
A final word about moderation: Use it. Although the Mediterranean diet doesn’t require the strict portioning and calorie counting that many other diets do, it requires using good judgment about how much you eat (and drink).
Pasta, for example, is a side dish in the Mediterranean diet, not the main course, and eating a huge serving of it will have the same effect as in any other diet. Olive oil can also pile on calories if you use it excessively. And don’t think that the inclusion of red wine in the Mediterranean diet is an excuse to polish off a whole bottle every night, either — the general recommendation is a maximum of two glasses per day for men and one for women.