The Mediterranean Diet — sometimes called the MD for short — consistently ranks at the top of the best diets overall. That’s partly because the Mediterranean diet is an inclusive eating pattern full of healthy foods, not a restrictive plan.
The Mediterranean Diet also tops the charts because it’s full of affordable, accessible foods that are delicious — and that you probably already love to eat. The Mediterranean diet feels more like a pleasure than a chore.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet takes its name from the sea it is named after and includes foods native to the Mediterranean countries – namely Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon.
Foods that originate from the Mediterranean include many vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. It’s low in sugar, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats. Basically, the Mediterranean diet is amazing and effective because it naturally contains nutrient-dense plant-based foods and excludes unhealthy additives.
The fact that the MD is flexible and accessible and you have what is essentially a perfect meal plan. It’s so good for you that in 1993, the nonprofit group Oldways partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) to create the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid as a healthier alternative to the USDA Food Pyramid.
And – this is important – the Mediterranean diet is a treat. “It celebrates the enjoyment of food,” Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian and weight-loss expert based in New York City and co-author of Sugar Shock, told TODAY.
Possible health benefits of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet was developed because people living in Mediterranean countries tend to have less heart disease and live longer than Americans, and experts think their diet could get a lot of credit for that. In the 1950s, researchers became interested in Mediterranean food. In 1992, the USDA introduced it as a diet to help Americans lower their cholesterol levels.
In addition to the general benefits of consuming MD, there are also many benefits for specific demographics. Recent research suggests that pregnant women can reduce their risk of developing high blood pressure with a Mediterranean diet. Another study shows that people at risk for metabolic diseases can lower their blood cholesterol and improve their digestive health by sticking to a Mediterranean diet.
Also, the Mediterranean diet has proven to be very effective for people who want to control or lose weight. A study analyzed the diets of more than 32,000 Italians over 12 years and found an association between the Mediterranean diet and lower weight gain and waist circumference increases.
If that’s not enough to convince you, the “green” Mediterranean diet – which excludes red meat – has been shown to be extremely effective at reducing visceral fat. Visceral fat is dangerous to our health because it surrounds organs and can damage it.
But you don’t have to have a health problem to adopt the Mediterranean diet. “It’s a healthy diet for almost everyone,” Karen Ansel, a New York-based nutritionist and author of “Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging,” told TODAY. Experts agree that it can be among the best ways to lose weight. And it can work if you’re looking to improve your overall health, even if you’re happy with your weight.
Food for the Mediterranean diet
Keep in mind that the Mediterranean diet is as much a culture as it is a cuisine, so it’s not about what’s allowed or avoided. Before it was a “diet,” MD was simply the way people living near the Mediterranean ate – people who depended on seasonal foods while also having to watch their budget and their family’s health , so it’s okay for you to get off the ground on your lead and pick up as much or as little Mediterranean food as you can.
Apart from that, these are the central foods of the Mediterranean diet:
- Fish – especially salmon, sardines and tuna
- Fresh produce – use what is locally grown to ensure freshness
- Healthy fats – like nuts, avocado, and olive oil
- Lean dairy products – like cheese, Greek yogurt, and milk
- Whole grains – try granola, brown rice, and whole-wheat pasta, or ancient grains like quinoa, chia, amaranth, bulgar, and buckwheat
- Wine – in moderation
The food pyramid of the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean Food Pyramid offers a great way to understand how to think about your food instead of giving you rigid instructions. It’s organized by how often you should include a food category in your diet, with foods you should include most frequently at the bottom and foods you should include less frequently at the top.
Here is the Mediterranean food pyramid from base to top:
- Fruits, vegetables, grains (usually whole), olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes & seeds, herbs & spices: Consume these with every meal.
- Seafood: Eat at least twice a week.
- Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt: Eat in moderate amounts daily to weekly, depending on the food.
- Meat and Sweets: Eat these only occasionally.
Foods to avoid on the Mediterranean diet
There are no totally forbidden foods in the Mediterranean diet. But in general, you want to stick to eating foods with recognizable, non-scientific names. A general rule of thumb is that most things you eat shouldn’t come in boxes.
Here are some foods to avoid on the Mediterranean diet:
- alcohol (except wine)
- Heavily processed foods — like frozen foods with added sodium, soda, high-sugar drinks, candy, and processed cheese
- Processed red meat – like hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and cold cuts
- Refined grains – like white bread, white pasta, or anything with white flour
- Refined or Processed Oils – such as soybean oil, safflower oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, and any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
Mediterranean diet recipes
Learn more about the Mediterranean diet:
Bonnie Taub-Dix contributed.