What is the Mediterranean diet?

Everything you need to know about the Mediterranean diet — the plant-packed approach to eating that’s linked to an impressive list of health benefits.

The Mediterranean diet is often recommended by healthcare professionals as a proven way to boost your health and wellbeing and cut your risk of chronic illnesses. 

But before you reach for the red wine and pizza, read on to find out exactly what this healthy eating pattern involves and how you can get started. 

In this blog, we cover: 

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating based on the traditional foods and eating patterns of people living in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It focuses on plant-based foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

The concept of the Mediterranean diet was born in the 1950s, when researchers found that the eating patterns of people living in Mediterranean countries, specifically Greece and Italy, were linked to lower rates of heart disease than those in other countries such as the USA and in Northern Europe. 

A traditional Mediterranean diet includes a daily intake of the following foods [1]: 

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Healthy fats, specifically extra virgin olive oil
  • Wholegrains, like wholewheat bread and brown rice
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Pulses like beans, chickpeas, and lentils

The following foods are recommended in moderation:

  • Fish and seafood (especially oily fish that’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids) 
  • Yoghurt and cheese

Foods that you should avoid or only eat in small quantities on the Mediterranean diet:

  • Red meat and processed meats (swap out red meat for poultry)
  • Butter
  • Sugary drinks
  • Sweets
  • Alcohol (apart from wine in moderation)

Mediterranean diet infographic

How can the Mediterranean diet improve my health?

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet has an impressive range of health benefits including [2]:

  • Lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease, like heart disease and stroke
  • Lowering your risk of certain types of cancer 
  • Helping you maintain a healthy weight
  • Lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes, or if you have diabetes, helping you control your blood sugar level 
  • Helping to reduce your blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels
  • Supporting a healthy balance of gut bacteria, which can lead to better digestion
  • Slowing the decline of brain function as you age (and reducing your risk of dementia)
  • Improving your mood and mental health
  • Helping you live longer

Researchers believe that the Mediterranean diet’s protective effects on the heart are mainly linked to its focus on healthy fats. Healthy fats help keep your levels of bad cholesterol in check, which is good for your heart and blood vessels.

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The Mediterranean diet is also naturally low in sodium, which helps reduce your blood pressure. It also limits refined carbs (including sugar), while favouring high-fibre foods and antioxidants. Antioxidants help reduce inflammation in the body, which is linked to heart disease. 


Anti-inflammatory foods include: 

  • Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
  • Olive oil
  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna 
  • Fruits such as strawberries and blueberries
  • Nuts (e.g. almonds and walnuts) 

How do I start the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is one of the easiest diets to follow. There are no hard and fast rules — it’s simply a healthy, well-balanced approach to eating that you can tailor to your needs and goals. 

If you’re planning to make any significant changes to your diet, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP or a dietician before you begin. They can advise whether the approach is right for you and provide a Mediterranean diet meal plan and recipes. You can also give some of your favourite foods a Mediterranean twist, such as a heart-healthy pizza.

Mediterranean diets usually include a lot more fibre than you may be used to eating. And this sudden increase in fibre may cause gas, bloating, and changes in your bowel habits. To avoid these problems, you can:

  • Slowly increase your fibre intake over several weeks
  • Make sure you stay hydrated — aim to drink six to eight cups of fluid throughout the day. Water, lower-fat milk, and sugar-free drinks including tea and coffee all count, according to the NHS Eatwell Guide

To get the most from the Mediterranean diet, try to:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Quit smoking if you smoke
  • Prepare and enjoy meals with your friends and family
  • Eat fresh foods and try to eat foods that are in season
  • Cook from scratch more often than you eat out

Five top tips on how to follow the Mediterranean diet

We’ve put together five tips to help you create the perfect Mediterranean diet plate:

1. Eat your five a day  

Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help aid digestion, keep your bowel healthy, and reduce cholesterol, which can lower your risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease [3].  

2. Bulk your meals with starch and fibre 

Basing your meals on starchy wholegrains such as brown rice and wholewheat pasta can help you feel fuller for longer. It also increases your fibre intake.  

Fibre-rich foods such as beans, nuts, and seeds help keep your gut healthy, but also reduce your risk of conditions, such as [4]: 

  • Heart disease  
  • Stroke  
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Bowel cancer 

3. Don’t shy away from healthy fats  

Fats don’t automatically spring to mind when we think of healthy foods, but they’re an important part of your diet. They also help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. 

Try to avoid unhealthy saturated and trans fats and opt for healthy, unsaturated fats instead. Unsaturated fats can help improve your levels of good cholesterol and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease [5]. 

Foods that contain healthy fats include: 

  • Olive oil  
  • Nuts
  • Avocados 

     Mediterranean diet healthy food

4. Keep your meat and dairy intake low

Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. However too much red or processed meat (over 70g a day) can be bad for your health [6]. Some meats are high in saturated fat, which can raise your cholesterol levels if you eat too much. 

Try swapping red meat for poultry, or even better, go for fish. Fatty fish (such as herring, sardines, mackerel, and salmon) are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy omega-3 levels can help reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes [7]. You can check your omega-3 levels with our Omega-3 and -6 Blood Test. If you eat dairy products, switch out full-fat for either low-fat or fat-free products. Or you could go for a dairy-free option that’s fortified with essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12 and calcium.  

5. Watch what you drink 

The Mediterranean allows a moderate amount of wine consumption. Remember, the NHS recommendation is to keep your alcohol units below 14 units a week [8].  

Switch out fizzy drinks for six to eight glasses of water per day. Fizzy drinks often contain lots of sugar and can lead to obesity, which can heighten your risk of developing conditions such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes [9].  

What should be on a Mediterranean diet shopping list?

Now you have some top tips, but what exactly do you need to buy to get started?  

Ten top Mediterranean diet foods to add to your shopping list:

  1. Extra virgin olive oil  
  2. Wholemeal bread
  3. Greek yoghurt  
  4. Walnuts
  5. Leafy green vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, and spinach) 
  6. Fruit 
  7. Lentils 
  8. Beans (such as chickpeas, butter beans, and black beans) 
  9. Oily fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel) 
  10. Wholewheat pasta  

What is the green Mediterranean diet?

The green Mediterranean (or green Med) diet is a version of the traditional Mediterranean diet that’s even higher in green, plant-based sources of protein and contains very little or no red meat or poultry. 
There’s evidence to suggest that this plant-rich version of the Mediterranean diet is even better for your health than the traditional plan. 

The green Mediterranean diet, supplemented with walnuts, green tea, and Mankai (a high-protein form of duckweed), came out tops in the health benefit stakes in several studies comparing it to the traditional version of the diet. 

For example, a study found that the green Mediterranean diet resulted in more improvement in several cardiovascular and metabolic health risk factors than the traditional Mediterranean diet, including greater reductions in [10]:

  • Bad cholesterol levels
  • Diastolic blood pressure 
  • Insulin resistance 
  • Waist circumference — an indicator of potentially harmful midriff bulge 

Results from a clinical trial suggest that the green Mediterranean diet is also better at reducing the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) than the traditional Mediterranean diet of [11]. 
The green Med diet is perfect if you follow a plant-based diet, as you can get your protein solely from plant sources like nuts and beans.

     What is the green Mediterranean diet?

Is the Mediterranean diet good for weight loss?

The word diet is often associated with weight loss. But the Mediterranean diet is a way of life rather than a weight loss plan. The main aim is to help you achieve better health by reducing your risk of certain health conditions or helping you manage them better. 

Mediterranean diet principles align with those of the Eatwell Guide, which sets out how to eat a healthy, balanced diet. It’s often recommended by medical professionals as part of treatment plans for conditions such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.  

That’s not to say that if you’re following the Mediterranean diet, you won’t lose weight. It’s quite possible, as plants are naturally low in calories and high in fibre, which can help you feel fuller for longer. Healthy fats and protein help to keep your blood sugar levels stable, meaning you’re less likely to reach for ultra-processed snacks.

Are there any cons to the Mediterranean diet?

There are plenty of pros for adopting the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. But there are some areas of your health you may need to be mindful of when starting this diet.

Health issues to be aware of when following the Mediterranean diet:

  • You may gain weight from eating fats such as olive oil and nuts
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies — the Mediterranean diet restricts some foods that are good sources of essential vitamins and minerals (e.g. red meat is a good source of iron and dairy products are high in calcium and vitamin B12). But there are plenty of plant-based alternatives, so you can make sure your nutrient levels stay in the healthy range. 
  • Watch your alcohol intake — although a moderate amount of wine is permitted, you shouldn’t start to drink if you didn’t before. Also, avoid alcohol if you’re pregnant, prone to alcohol abuse, at increased risk of breast cancer, or have any conditions that can be impacted by your alcohol intake.

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If you want to check your levels of essential vitamins and minerals, including your iron store (ferritin), vitamin B12, magnesium, and vitamin D, try our finger-prick Nutrition Blood Test, which you can take at home. This test also checks your cholesterol levels to explore your risk of heart disease.


References 

  1. Heart UK (2022) The Mediterranean diet. Available at: https://www.heartuk.org.uk/healthy-diets/the-mediterranean-diet (Accessed: 15 November 2023). 
  2. NHS (2022) Mediterranean diet. Available at: https://www.uhcw.nhs.uk/download/clientfiles/files/Patient%20Information%20Leaflets/Clinical%20Support%20Services/Dietetics/Mediterranean%20diet.pdf (Accessed: 14 November 2023).
  3. Food Standards Scotland (2022) The five food groups. Available at: https://www.foodstandards.gov.scot/consumers/healthy-eating/nutrition/the-five-foodgroups#:~:text=You%20should%20eat%20at%20least,bowel%20healthy%20and%20help%20digestion. (Accessed: 15 November 2023). 
  4. British Nutrition Foundation (2022) Fibre. Available at: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthy-sustainable-diets/starchy-foods-sugar-and-fibre/fibre/ (Accessed: 14 November 2023). 
  5. Heart Foundation (2022) Fats, oils and heart health. Available at: https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/heart-health-education/fats-oils-and-heart-health#:~:text=Unsaturated%20fats%20can%20help%20improve,your%20risk%20of%20heart%20disease. (Accessed: 16 November 2023). 
  6. NHS (2022) Red meat and bowel cancer risk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-guidelines-and-food-labels/red-meat-and-the-risk-of-bowel-cancer/#:~:text=But%20eating%20a%20lot%20of,your%20risk%20of%20bowel%20cancer. (Accessed: 15 November 2023). 
  7. The Nutrition Source (2022) Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution. Available at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/ (Accessed: 14 November 2023). 
  8. NHS (2022) The risks of drinking too much. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-advice/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/#:~:text=Low%2Drisk%20drinking%20advice&text=men%20and%20women%20are%20advised,drink%2Dfree%20days%20each%20week (Accessed: 14 November 2023). 
  9. NHS (2022) Water, drinks and your health. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-guidelines-and-food-labels/water-drinks-nutrition/ (Accessed: 15 November 2023).
  10. Tsaban, G. et al. (2021) The effect of Green Mediterranean diet on cardiometabolic risk; a randomised controlled trial, Heart. Available at: https://heart.bmj.com/content/107/13/1054 (Accessed: 16 November 2023). 
  11. Meir, A.Y. et al. (2021) Effect of green-mediterranean diet on intrahepatic fat: The Direct Plus Randomised Controlled Trial, Gut. Available at: https://gut.bmj.com/content/70/11/2085 (Accessed: 16 November 2023). 

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