When you think of going on a diet, you probably start to worry about how hungry and bored you’re going to be while following a plan. Yet all the experts are saying this diet or that program will help you lose weight, burn fat, and keep your heart in excellent shape. What’s so great about heart-healthy diets, anyway? Do they really work? It depends on whether or not you’re willing to try one out. If you’re ready for a big but worthwhile lifestyle change, the Mediterranean Diet might be the right choice for you.
In 2017, the Mediterranean Diet was ranked No. 2 in the U.S. News & World Report’s best diets overall, just behind the DASH diet. Not only is this diet good for your heart, but it’s also proven to be extremely effective for large numbers of people. The best part about this diet is that it’s not difficult to follow. There aren’t strict rules for when and how much you should eat. No food groups are completely off limits. There is no membership fee. You don’t have to track your intake if you don’t want to, either.
All you have to do is learn which foods experts recommend you should eat the most, and which ones you should eat the least. You can then apply this knowledge to your daily eating habits. Let’s take a closer look at what the Mediterranean diet is all about.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
People who live in regions of the world like Italy and Greece are known for living longer than those who live elsewhere. Those residing in these Mediterranean regions also tend to contract fewer chronic diseases, like heart problems. That’s why so many, experts and non-experts alike, claim this diet is one of the best you can try. Take a look at the many benefits of this omega-3, fiber, and whole grain-rich way of eating to see for yourself.
- You’ll have a healthier heart. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, those at higher risk of developing heart disease and related issues can benefit significantly from the Mediterranean diet. The diet includes a variety of healthy fats and carbs, which keep your heart in its best shape possible.
- You’ll have fewer metabolic problems. Research has suggested those who closely follow this diet for an extended period of time are better able to manage issues related to metabolism, including but not limited to obesity, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure.
- You’ll engage in regular physical activity. The Mediterranean diet includes regular exercise as an important component. Exercise can reduce stress, improve your sleep quality, put you in a better mood, and help you burn fat and build muscle while you continue to fill your body with the foods that keep it healthy.
- You won’t get bored. This diet emphasizes adding healthy varieties of flavors to your food without increasing your salt and saturated fat intake. There are very few whole foods you shouldn’t eat on this diet. While you’ll have to cut back on your processed food intake, it’s likely after a few weeks that you won’t even miss it.
This diet isn’t as hard to follow as you might think. Take a look at the guidelines and see for yourself. You might already be eating a number of the foods suggested — it’s just a matter of choosing the best options possible in each food group.
The Mediterranean diet does not tell you when to eat or exactly which foods you should have on any given day. However, there is a general set of guidelines that are simple to follow. Adjusting to a new diet can seem complicated, but if you take these new rules to live by one at a time and incorporate them gradually into your meals and snacks, you’ll find it’s not as challenging as you first thought it might be.
Populate your plate with plant-based foods
The benefits of plant-based foods are widely studied, and great indicators that you should eat more plants regardless of which diet you decide to adopt next. Plants are free of saturated fats and only contain healthy, natural sugars that are essential for energy and overall health. Plant-based foods also tend to be high in fiber, which is good for digestive health.
Fruits and vegetables are the most important staples on a Mediterranean dieter’s plate. However, they aren’t the only plant-based foods you can eat to reel in the benefits. Beans, chickpeas, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are also extremely healthy examples of foods that don’t come from animals. You don’t have to go totally vegetarian on this diet, but the majority of what you eat — about three quarters of your plate at each meal — should come from plants.
Replace the salt shaker with something better
A consistent, high sodium intake eventually raises blood pressure, which can severely damage your heart. While you might not think you’re sprinkling that much salt into that pot of boiling water or onto your baked potato, it adds up more quickly than you realize. Besides, sodium is added to most processed foods to add flavor and extend shelf life. If you’ve never taken a close look at a nutrition label, check the food packages in your fridge and pantry and look at how much sodium is in each one. As a frame of reference, experts recommend you consume no more than 2,300 milligrams in a single day.
The Mediterranean diet doesn’t just swoop in and say, “No more salt” and force you to eat flavorless foods for the rest of your life. Instead, it suggests a much healthier alternative: herbs and spices. Everything from pepper to basil to garlic and thyme can add unbelievable flavors to your meals without raising your blood pressure to unreasonable heights.
Replace the primary sources of fat in your diet
Sometimes, we throw a lot of shame at people who like to eat bread. While it’s true that white breads and other refined products are severely deprived of beneficial nutrients, whole grain products — as long as they aren’t heavily processed — are actually good for you. Often, it’s what we spread onto these breads — or the things we choose to dip them in — that pose greater health risks. When it comes to bread, you should already know the major culprit: butter, and its not so healthy partner in crime, margarine.
While you don’t have to cut butter out of your life completely, it’s probably a good idea to get into the habit of using something healthier instead. Replace butter or margarine with olive oil when you cook or on certain foods, especially breads. Stay away from vegetable oils — olive oil is a healthier option. Olive oil will give your bread a worthwhile taste and texture without contributing large amounts of saturated fat to your daily total.
Mind your red meat
You may have heard red meat will give you cancer. While the results of eating red meat aren’t always quite this extreme, there is a reason the Mediterranean diet recommends eating less red meat — only on special occasions. According to the National Institutes of Health, eating less red meat can decrease your risk of dying from a number of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. While cutting red meat out of your diet isn’t a guaranteed shield against these conditions, you’re much less likely to suffer the consequences of choosing steak and hamburgers for every meal.
Instead, the Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of fish and poultry. Fish and seafood are especially beneficial for your overall health, as they’re high in healthy fats as well as protein. As long as you’re not opting only for fried fish filets, you can do your body a ton of good by choosing tuna, tilapia, or wild salmon once or twice per week. Chicken is also a healthy source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. It’s also extremely versatile — it goes with almost anything.
ΩEnjoy your wine — in moderation
With the number of studies published about the benefits and risks of drinking alcohol, it’s sometimes difficult to determine how much wine is safe — if it’s even worth drinking at all. The consensus among experts is that a glass of wine with dinner won’t hurt you. The less wine you drink, the lower your risk of a number of diseases often associated with increased alcohol consumption. On the Mediterranean diet, wine isn’t off limits. In fact, it’s often encouraged.
Anything between seven and 14 units of alcohol per week is considered moderate consumption, so as long as you stick to one or two glasses per day, you can still enjoy your favorite method of relaxation. Some research even suggests a little wine, when paired with a healthy exercise regimen, might have even more health benefits.
Get fit — get moving
What sets the Mediterranean diet apart from most other diets out there is its emphasis on exercise. The creators of the official diet understood the importance of regular physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle — and so should you. You don’t have to start running marathons or enter powerlifting competitions to get fit. Even walking is better than sitting all day every day without elevating your heart rate and sweating a little.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week, in addition to a moderate strength-training regimen. Physical activity entails anything that forces your body to work — even stairs (though you’ll climb many flights of stairs if that’s the only activity you choose). The key is to figure out which activities you enjoy and start there.
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid
Like many other diet plants, the Mediterranean diet has its own pyramid — a chart representing the most essential foods at the base and the most unessential foods at the very top. It makes it easier to remember which foods you should eat most often and which ones you should try to stay away from as much as possible.
These are the most important foods to include in your day when following a Mediterranean diet plan, listed here from the foods you should eat the most finishing with those you should eat the least.
- Fruits and vegetables — at least nine daily servings
- Whole grains
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil, herbs, and spices
- Fish and seafood
- Eggs, cheese, and yogurt
- Meat and sweet foods, like candy
- Oatmeal made with steel cut oats, milk, banana slices, walnuts, and honey
- Sliced strawberries
- Greek yogurt with almonds and blueberries
- Tuna, spinach, celery and cranberries on a whole grain roll
- Apple slices with your choice of nut butter
- Whole wheat crackers with hummus dip
- Green salad with spinach, tomato, olives, feta cheese, and a vinaigrette based dressing
- Rosemery roasted chicken strips
- Wild rice
- Garlic bread with olive oil
- Glass of red wine
- Two hard boiled eggs
- Low fat cottage cheese
Tips for success on the Mediterranean Diet
No diet is easy to stick with at first. Here are a few tips to help you stick to this one, especially during those tough first few weeks.
- Don’t tell yourself you can’t have a certain food, especially at first. Depriving yourself of the foods you’re craving will only make you want them more, and the longer you wait, the more you’re going to want to eat. Instead of cutting foods out of your diet in one day, start replacing less healthy foods one by one with healthier ones.
- If you’re not a huge fan of how vegetables taste, sauté them with fresh herbs or spices to enhance their flavor without adding large doses of salt.
- Don’t try forcing yourself to do types of exercise you don’t like. You’re not going to stick with running, for example, if you hate running. Try a variety of activities — dance, swimming, biking, even stair climbing — until you find a few activities you enjoy. If it gets you moving for at least 30 minutes per day, it counts.
Above all, your diet’s success depends on you. Not every diet is effective for every person. It’s your willingness to stick to a healthy lifestyle that will help you fight off cravings and make healthier choices. If you believe a healthy diet can work for you, start small. Work your way up to introducing a greater variety of fresh, beneficial foods into your diet. It doesn’t all have to happen in a day.