The Mediterranean diet as we know it today is based on the traditional foods eaten in countries such as France, Spain, Greece, and Italy where people were healthy and didn’t suffer from chronic diseases. Research today confirms that this way of eating promotes weight loss and helps prevent heart attacks, strokes, and type 2 diabetes.
You don’t need an exact food list
Spanning the whole Mediterranean region, this diet includes a wide variety of diverse cuisines, meal preparation methods, and foods. This is good news because you don’t really need a strict food list to follow it. It’s enough to learn basic principles and some general food groups that you’re encouraged to eat more of. That can look as simple as this:
- Eat a lot of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, potatoes, herbs, spices, nuts and legumes.
- Include plenty of fish and seafood and use olive oil as your main source of fat for both cold meals and cooking.
- If you can, choose foods that are minimally processed, in season, and locally grown.
- A moderate intake of different types of cheese, yoghurt, poultry and eggs is encouraged.
- Red meat should be consumed infrequently.
- Rarely indulge in sweetened beverages, processed meats, refined grains, and foods high in the combination of added sugar and fat.
Now, let’s see how we can use these principles to start changing your daily diet. You don’t have to do all of these at once. Start with those changes that feel the easiest to make and take it from there.
Breakfast is often the best meal to start with because you’re fully in control of what you eat before you leave the house. Here are a few Mediterranean alternatives to popular breakfast meals.
- Sugary cereal with milk –> Greek yoghurt with fruit, nuts and seeds
- Pancakes –> Oatmeal with fresh berries and walnuts
- Bacon and eggs –> Frittata, an egg-based dish made in a frying pan with various vegetables and cheese
- Bread with butter and ham –> Wholegrain bread with soft cheese, olives and sliced tomatoes
Easy snack options
Snacking is often where a diet goes wrong. Resorting to processed sugar-laden snacks or beverages to get a quick boost of energy is all too common if you don’t have a plan. Here are a few easy snacks you can carry with you, store at your desk at work and have ready in your pantry at home.
- A piece of fresh fruit
- A pack of nuts or seeds
- A pack of olives
- A piece of cheese
If you have time to prepare a snack, try using wholegrain bread as the base. If you manage to improve your snacking habits, you will easily reduce sugary beverage intake and be able to stick with water or unsweetened tea or coffee.
Have a salad with your lunch and dinner
The most important change you can make to your main meals of the day is to add a small vegetable salad. Try to make a habit out of it. You can also experiment with plant-based protein sources you don’t usually eat, this could be lentils, chickpeas, beans or peas. You can use these to replace some of the red meat and processed meat. Choosing traditional side dishes such as bulgur, barley, farro or whole-grain pasta, if you have the option, can also be an easy way to get closer to the Mediterranean diet. And if you’re cooking, start using olive oil instead of other oils, butter or lard if the recipe allows.
Fruit for dessert
Desserts are another place where diets often go off the rails. The Mediterranean diet typically calls for fruit as the dessert option. It’s unlikely to be as tasty as processed desserts high in sugar and fat but give it a try. You might find that you enjoy fresh fruit a lot more than you think and you will feel better after too.
Take it slow
Focus on making one or two small changes at first and only add another if you think you can maintain them all long-term. Changing your diet is a long process. It’s better to stick with a few improvements for life than do the Mediterranean diet perfectly for a month and then quit because it’s not sustainable. If you think having more detailed guidance is more of your style, read the next article in the series where we will go over a 5-day meal plan.