The Mediterranean Diet: How to Know if It's Right for You
This popular and science-backed eating plan offers some major health benefits. Here’s what you should know and what you can look forward to eating.
You probably already know that olive oil, fish, whole grains, loads of vegetables, beans, and red wine (in moderate amounts) are good for you. But do you know why you know that? It’s thanks to research suggesting the Mediterranean diet — an eating pattern and lifestyle, not a specific diet plan — can lower your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic ailments.
That’s why the experts at U.S. News & World Report have ranked it as the #1 overall best diet for four years in a row. After looking at decades of studies showing the eating pattern’s benefits, they’ve also put it at #1 for plant-based diets, heart-healthy diets, diabetes diets, and diets for healthy eating — and named it the easiest diet to follow, too.
Read on to learn more about what the Mediterranean diet can do for your health. And then we’ll help you launch your trip to the Mediterranean with some delicious recipes that fit the eating plan.
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What is the Mediterranean diet?
For thousands of years, people who live near the Mediterranean Sea have eaten a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fish and seafood, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and heart-healthy olive oil. They have drunk red wine with meals and enjoyed red meat, dairy products, and sweets less often. This way of eating came from necessity — these foods were easily available in the region and inexpensive.
After World War II, an American physiologist named Ancel Keys noticed that people who lived in impoverished, war-ravaged countries suffered less heart disease than wealthy Americans. He set out to research the Mediterranean lifestyle. Keys launched a decades-long study that compared dietary patterns in seven countries: Greece, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Japan, and Finland. The results: Participants in the countries near the Mediterranean Sea had the lowest rates of death from cardiovascular disease. They didn’t all eat exactly the same foods, but they shared three things: an active lifestyle, a tendency to enjoy meals with others, and what we now think of as a Mediterranean-style diet. Given those findings and numerous other studies, doctors have been recommending the diet for years. The American Heart Association recommends it, too. It’s considered one of the healthiest diets in the world.
Who is the Mediterranean diet for?
No single diet works for everyone. But if you’re looking for an easy-to-live-with eating pattern that can help control your weight and lower your risk of chronic ailments like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, the Mediterranean diet should be at the top of your list.
How does the Mediterranean diet work?
This isn’t a drop-10-pounds-quick kind of diet. It’s not aimed at weight loss, although it can help you shed pounds and maintain a healthy weight. Instead, it focuses on changing your lifestyle to improve your health. You’ll eat the foods typical of the traditional Mediterranean diet (though not in any specific amount) — ideally, socializing during meals. Be sure to include regular physical activity.
These foods are naturally high in health-promoting fiber, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fat. They're also lower in unhealthy saturated fats and cholesterol, so, over time, you can expect to see improvements in your health. Those improvements can lower your risk factors for several chronic diseases.
What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
Scientists have been studying this lifestyle for half a century. Research has shown this eating pattern can lower your risk of:
Metabolic syndrome — a group of risk factors, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess fat around your waist, and elevated cholesterol
Cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and stroke
Several kinds of cancer, including colorectal cancer and breast cancer
Plus, research suggests this lifestyle could improve your odds of living a long, healthy life.
Is the Mediterranean diet safe?
Very. Because it focuses on overall lifestyle changes rather than restricting foods, the Mediterranean diet offers a wide variety of nutrients and quite a few health benefits. But there’s a chance you may gain weight, since there’s no guidance on serving size. If you simply add olive oil and nuts to your diet without also reducing your intake of red meat, sugar, and dairy products, for example, you’re likely to eat more calories than your body needs.
What do you eat during the Mediterranean diet?
Because there are numerous cultures and traditions along the Mediterranean Sea, there’s no single “Mediterranean diet.” But those cultures do share certain foundations:
Abundant fruits and vegetables
Grains — mostly whole, but not necessarily all
Beans and legumes
Nuts and seeds
Herbs and spices
Fish and seafood
Moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt
Plenty of water
Red wine, in moderation
If it’s not already clear, the Mediterranean diet isn’t a low-fat diet, and it’s definitely not low in carbohydrates. To help you visualize how the diet works, Oldways (an organization dedicated to the “old ways” of shared cultural traditions) partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization to create a Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. At its base, before any particular food: physical activity and social connections. Including those lifestyle elements is every bit as important as what you’ll eat.
Ready to get cooking? Check out these Mediterranean diet recipes:
Mediterranean diet breakfast recipes
Start your day with fruits and vegetables, yogurt, eggs, and whole grains, and you won’t be hungry until lunch.
You’ll be amazed what happens when you simmer eggs in a simple spiced tomato and red pepper sauce. Don’t forget some whole-grain bread for dunking.
Sweeten thick and tangy Greek yogurt with a touch of honey, then top it with fresh fruit, a little granola, and a handful of nuts. You’ll be eating in less than 10 minutes.
Avocado toast may be trendy, but it’s also a fantastic quick option for breakfast on a Mediterranean diet. This version includes a runny fried egg on top for extra protein.
Ful is a simple bean stew people eat for breakfast all over the Middle East. Put canned fava beans, garlic, onion, and seasoning in the slow cooker before you go to bed, and you’ll kick off the next day with a ready-made meal.
It may sound strange — fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, chopped salad, and tahini stuffed inside a pita — but this sandwich is a deservedly popular Israeli breakfast.
Mediterranean diet lunch recipes
Midday meals are easy on the Mediterranean diet, thanks to its focus on vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains.
Middle Eastern spices like cumin and coriander offer a hint of the Mediterranean in this easy soup, but finishing with a squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil really seals the deal.
Wrap smashed chickpeas, chopped fresh vegetables, a quick tzatziki yogurt sauce, and black olives in a tortilla (you could also use lavash, a Middle Eastern flatbread). Toast on both sides for some nice crunch.
Chewy, nutty farro originated in the ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean Sea. Here, you’ll use it as the foundation for an easy lunch of seasoned chickpeas, raw veggies, and a creamy tahini dressing.
Greek yogurt does double-duty here — in the chicken’s marinade and in the cucumber-dill sauce for the sandwich. Cook the chicken ahead of time, and lunch will be ready in minutes.
The name of this recipe tells you (almost) everything you need to know. It’s a vibrant, herb-packed salad made from items you probably have in your kitchen right now. Lemony dressing adds tons of bright flavor.
Mediterranean diet dinner recipes
Dinner is where the Mediterranean diet really shines. Your options are practically endless.
The flavors of the Mediterranean adapt beautifully to everyone’s favorite one-pan dinner trick. Mild white fish, grape tomatoes, zucchini, and red onion meet kalamata olives, capers, oregano, and olive oil — and lemon, of course.
It takes only 15 minutes to make lemon- and orange-scented shrimp. Toss them with salad greens, sliced avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice, and you’ve got a luscious Mediterranean dinner in well under half an hour.
Roasting bone-in chicken breasts with garlic, lemon, and parsley creates the most wonderful aroma — and flavor. Pair it with a spiced-up couscous studded with pine nuts and currants.
Think of this as a Mediterranean twist on twice-baked potatoes. Here, the filling features spinach, feta cheese, garlic, and oregano. It’s much lighter than the usual buttery, cheesy calorie bomb.
Mediterranean countries excel at small salads and nibbles, the perfect option for a light (and picky eater-friendly) dinner. Build your platter with prepared hummus and stuffed grape leaves, chunks of feta cheese, olives, fresh vegetables, and other delights. And don’t forget the pita.
Add Mediterranean recipes to your Yummly Meal Plan
The Mediterranean diet isn’t tough to stick to because it offers a variety of healthy dishes for all tastes, but the Yummly Meal Planner makes it even easier to hit your nutrition goals. It helps you create and follow a personalized Meal Plan — from adding recipes to getting groceries delivered.
Explore more healthy recipes
At Yummly we take healthy eating as seriously as you do and we're constantly expanding our library of resources so you can stay up to date and make well-informed choices. The following articles should help quench your thirst for knowledge and new recipes, but there's more where these came from whenever you're ready for seconds.