Considered one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet is defined by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as a "primarily plant-based eating plan that includes daily intake of whole grains, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, nuts, herbs and spices."
Seafood-based animal proteins like salmon and sardines, along with other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts and avocados, are emphasized over red meat, eggs and dairy.
What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
Shortly after World War II, a study was conducted on the diets of middle-aged men in the US, Japan, Italy, Greece (including Crete), the Netherlands, Finland and Yugoslavia — and the results were surprising.
Tufts Health & Nutrition Newsletter explains, "The residents of Crete enjoyed the best cardiovascular health, a difference scientists largely ascribed to their diet — based on fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes and fish," despite the Cretans having dietary restrictions due to the war. In contrast, the group of American men who were studied, and hadn't had as many dietary restrictions, were the most at-risk for heart disease.
Based on this newfound knowledge, researchers discovered that the Cretan diet — which has come to be known as the Mediterranean Diet — is not only low in saturated fat, it can lower "high blood pressure, the risk for cancer and obesity along with other chronic diseases that tend to affect American eaters."
What Can You Eat on the Mediterranean Diet?
Think this is a free pass to guzzle wine and eat as much pasta and cheese as you want? Not so fast. According to the American Heart Association, your diet should focus on fruits, vegetables, grains, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds. Use and cook with olive oil, which is an important source of monounsaturated fat. Eat fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts and eat very little red meat. Consume eggs and wine in low to moderate amounts (zero to four times a week).
Ready to give it a try? From snacks to lunches and dinners, here are 10 Mediterranean diet recipes that fit within the Mediterranean diet guidelines to get you on your way. No plane ticket required.
1. Roasted Beet Hummus
While some diets may tout benefits like losing weight or increasing energy levels, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to have some pretty powerful effects when it comes to longterm health. LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD says that following this lifestyle may "help with reducing the risk of cancer, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease."
With regards to Alzheimer's, a study led by Dr. Lisa Mosconi from Weill Cornell Medicine examined the relationship between the Mediterranean diet and Alzheimers and found this type of diet reduced the "risk of this type of age-related dementia."
While chickpeas by themselves are good for you and have a slew of benefits like being high in protein, a great source of fiber, low in fat and full of antioxidants, this Mediterranean snack recipe gets a superfood upgrade thanks to a half cup of raw beets. Nutrient-dense, beets have also become popular with runners and bodybuilders thanks to their high-nitrate count that may contribute to a better athletic performance.
To make this dip (and your health) even better, add it to your favorite sandwiches as a spread like on this avocado toast. Your taste buds and your body will thank you.
2. Shaved Carrot and Cucumber Salad
Rather than dig into the bread basket, try this light cucumber and carrot salad as a lovely (and healthy) way to begin your Mediterranean-style meal. Carrots are full of beta-carotene which is converted into Vitamin A by the human body. And, according to Medline Plus, this vitamin has shown to be a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals, lowers the risk of diseases, has anti-aging benefits and offers protection against asthma.
To take this salad from meh to Mediterranean, add the key ingredient: Two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Medical News Today reports this healthy dietary fat, along with being the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, is one of the reasons people are "less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and hyperlipidemia (high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels)."
3. Rosemary and Olive Oil Almonds
The beauty of this crunchy, salty snack recipe: You can make a bunch of it ahead of time and feel good knowing that there's a healthy, Mediterranean diet-approved snack waiting for you in your pantry.
Almonds provide the same type of beneficial fat as olive oil but they are also a good source of plant-based protein to help curb mid-day hunger pangs, and are a good source of vitamin E. This vitamin, according to University Health News, is "essential for the nervous, cardiovascular, reproductive, musculoskeletal and other systems to work properly."
4. Walnut Ricotta Avocado Toast on Almond Bread
This Mediterranean diet recipe can be a snack (just watch your portions) or your daily lunch go-to. And if you are watching your carbohydrate count or need to go gluten-free, swap out your regular toast for this almond bread version that will up your protein intake and will help keep you satiated longer than the whole grain variety.
Top this open-faced sandwich with walnuts — another great source of healthy omega-3 fatty acid, protein and fiber, — and a small portion of ricotta cheese. While cheese isn't off-limits on the Mediterranean diet, it is used in moderation. Plan to keep the serving size in line with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommendations — under 1.5 ounces, which is the size of four dice.
5. Prosciutto Mozzarella Avocado Toast on Cauliflower Bread
Enjoy your avocado toast without the carbs by building it on easy-to-make cauliflower "bread." Add mozzarella, a great source of calcium, protein, niacin and vitamin B6, but remember to watch your portions.
And don't shy away from avocados. Avocado are "known for their anti-inflammatory properties and as sources of beneficial fats," says Weintraub. And arthritis.org couldn't agree more. "Unlike most fruits, avocados are a good source of vitamin E, a micronutrient with anti-inflammatory effects. Diets high in these compounds are linked to decreased risk of the joint damage seen in early osteoarthritis."
6. Spinach and Feta Avocado Toast on Keto Bread
"Studies also show eating avocados daily increases 'good' HDL cholesterol and lowers its 'bad' LDL counterpart. Despite the fruit's relatively high calorie content, research has found that regular avocado eaters tend to weigh less and have smaller waists. Their high fiber and fat content may help people control cravings," Mitzi Dulan, a Kansas City-based dietician and team sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Royals told arthritist.org.
This open-faced sandwich also includes nutrient-rich spinach. This dark leafy green is a great source of fiber plus essential nutrients like vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, folate, vitamin C, iron, manganese, potassium, tryptophan and more. The green has been shown to help lower blood pressure levels, promote gut-health, improve calcium absorption and prevent asthma and cancer.
7. Vegan Creamy Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Red peppers are loaded with essential vitamins that support health and immunity like vitamin C and are higher in vitamin A (essential for healthy eyesight) than their green, orange, and yellow pepper counterparts. Lycopene, a specific type of antioxidant that gives fruit and vegetables their deep red color, has been shown to helps fight damage caused by free radicals.
And lucky for soup fanatics, this soup recipes calls for both red peppers and tomatoes. It's also low in fat and calories so you can eat this for lunch, dinner or as a mid-day snack, totally guilt-free.
Weintraub cautions getting caught up in fad diets but sees the Mediterranean diet as something different. "I think folks get caught up in fad diets like Keto, Paleo and low-carb, and I see the Mediterranean diet as being more balanced, sustainable and backed by science."
8. Mediterranean Zoodles With Creamy Feta Dressing
Unlike other diets, "The Mediterranean diet doesn't demonize food as so many diets do," says Weintraub. "It celebrates a way of life that uses fresh, local ingredients. Exercise and stress relief is an important part of this lifestyle."
Zucchini, a staple in the Mediterranean diet and at summer farmer's markets, has received a modern makeover thanks to clever reincarnations like "zoodles." However you like to eat this vegetable, though, it is versatile and nutritious, containing Vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin which helps with eyesight, and manganese, which helps protect your body from free radicals.
9. Arugula Salad with Salmon and Avocado
Weintraub likes the Mediterranean Diet's emphasis on non-red meat. "I like the focus on seafood because it's an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. There's really nothing I dislike specifically about the diet," she says. Weintraub also notes that salmon is good for helping to fight inflammation.
This Mediterranean-style salad recipe, by chef and author Seamus Mullen, recommends using wild-caught salmon for its eco-friendly benefits. Peppery arugula, crisp radishes, and creamy avocado make up the base, and the salad is topped with sunflower seeds for a satisfying crunch.
10. Grilled Italian Eggplant Caprese Salad
This salad, aptly called the Caprese, originated in Capri, Italy. Regardless of its origin, this recipe is firmly planted in the Mediterranean diet thanks to the mix of in-season tomatoes, grilled eggplant, balls of mozzarella and olive oil.
Often overlooked, eggplant is a versatile veggie you can add to your diet as a part of this healthy lifestyle. The purple-colored vegetable, according to according to Medical News Today, has been shown to promote heart health, lower blood cholesterol levels, have anti-cancer effects and antioxidant properties that "that protects brain cell membranes from free radical damage."
The key takeaways of the Mediterranean diet, according to Weintraub: "Eat more vegetables, focus on lean proteins and don't be afraid of using some healthy fats." And as they say in Italy, "Buon appetito!"