The Mediterranean Diet is having a moment. No, we don’t mean a pizza-and-pasta-fueled, wine-soaked pandemic moment. (Sorry.) We’re talking about the fact that, for the fifth year in a row, US News & World Report in January of 2022 ranked the Mediterranean diet No. 1 in multiple categories, including best for heart health, best for diabetes and best overall diet for weight loss.
The plan’s success comes as no surprise to Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte. A longtime Mediterranean diet proponent, Anderson specializes in helping people transition from the sugar-fat-and-salt-riddled Standard American Diet (SAD) to a healthier, more sustainable eating pattern.
Recently, we talked with Anderson about the ins and outs of eating Mediterranean-style. Below, she describes what the diet is (lots of whole, fresh foods) and what it’s not (bottomless bowls of pasta and meat-laden pizzas). She also shared some helpful tips. And you’ll find easy and delicious recipes further down.
Many of us have heard of the Mediterranean diet, but may not understand what it includes. Could you fill us in?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the long-standing, healthy eating habits of the residents of Mediterranean countries — which include Italy, Greece, parts of Spain and France, and several Middle Eastern and north African countries. In this region, people have a longer life expectancy and a lower prevalence of disease.
Because it includes so many varying cuisines, the Mediterranean diet has no set rules. However, there are several key components, which all of the Mediterranean cuisines have in common:
- Abundant fruits and vegetables of all varieties.
- Lots of beans, legumes (like lentils, peas and peanuts), whole grains and potatoes.
- Healthy (unsaturated) fats, including olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados.
- Oily fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines — or shellfish like scallops, mussels and clams — two or three times a week.
- Low-fat dairy, including cheese and plain or Greek yogurt.
- Skinless poultry (breast meat is best).
- Infrequent sugary sweets, few processed foods and very little red meat.
- Red wine (in moderation) instead of hard liquor: Usually one glass a day for women or two for men. Better yet, stay hydrated with lots of water.
Dietitians help us make smart choices
Is it possible to follow this plan if you prefer not to eat — or are allergic to — one or more of these foods?
The beauty of this plan is how flexible it is. If you’re allergic to fish, you can just skip it, and focus on other aspects, like eating more whole grains and vegetables.
In fact, many people are surprised to learn how plant-based this diet really is. It’s perfect for vegetarians! But that’s not to say it’s all ‘crazy vegan food.’
The focus here is on portions and proportions: Instead of filling half your plate with meat, fill half the plate with vegetables. The meat, if you choose to eat it, becomes more of an accent.
When you eat less meat and fewer processed foods, you naturally lower your intake of saturated fats and trans fats, which can help protect your heart and keep other illnesses at bay.
Speaking of health … what are the benefits of a Mediterranean diet?
Nutrition is always my primary concern — even when my clients need to focus on losing weight to improve their overall health. So, while you can lose weight eating this way, the real beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that it:
- Reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke by lowering cholesterol.
- Helps you maintain muscle strength and energy as you grow older.
- Improves brain health while protecting you from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Increases longevity by lowering your risk of developing potentially fatal illnesses.
- Reduces your risk of Type 2 diabetes by maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
And here’s a stealth-benefit: Eating this way can help you save money. That’s because you’re building meals around plants, beans and whole grains, while cutting back on pricey meats and processed foods.
Moving toward a healthier lifestyle — even one as flexible as the Mediterranean diet — can feel overwhelming. Do you have any helpful suggestions?
Switching to a Mediterranean diet isn’t an all-or-nothing experience. I always encourage people to take their time and make small, incremental changes. It’s amazing how quickly they can make a difference. Here are some of my favorite strategies:
- Stay positive: Instead of worrying about what to cut out, look for opportunities to add healthy foods in (add veggies to your sandwich, or a handful of baby spinach to your soup).
- Embrace the benefits of community, Mediterranean style: Cooking and eating with family, friends and colleagues, in person or via technology like Zoom, can boost happiness and lower anxiety. (Remember to practice social distancing.)
- Keep track of meals you enjoy, and build a collection of easy, go-to recipes. Keep the ingredients in your pantry or fridge, so you’ll be less tempted by processed or takeout foods on busy days.
- Add movement to your day. Park further from the store when you go shopping, do a few minutes of yoga at lunchtime, go for an after-dinner walk. Every little bit counts.
- Explore stress-reducing activities like mindful eating, meditation or yoga. Get plenty of sleep. Learn how to knit, draw or grow your own herbs. Soothing hobbies help you relax.
Remember: The Mediterranean diet isn’t a fad, get-thin-quick diet. Some people do have luck with those in the short run, but most of us gain that weight back. Instead, embrace an overall lifestyle that can ensure your good health for years to come.
Try one (or all) of these 3 recipes
Baked salmon Mediterranean bowl with quinoa and tzatziki
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon ground sumac OR 1/2 tablespoon lemon pepper
- 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper
- 3 cloves garlic, minced, divided
- 1 lemon, halved, divided
- 1 pound salmon, or 4 skinless salmon ﬁllets (6 ounces each)
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into large cubes
- 2 zucchinis, cut into large chunks
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked quinoa
- 6 ounces plain, low-fat Greek yogurt
- 2 small cucumbers, one finely diced and one chopped, divided
- 1 tablespoon dried dill
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
- 4 ounces low-sodium, reduced-fat feta cheese, cut into cubes
- Nonstick cooking spray
- Heat oven to 400.
- To make the marinade: Combine olive oil, sumac, cayenne pepper, oregano, salt, pepper, 1/3 of the minced garlic and the juice and zest from half the lemon (reserve other lemon half).
- Place salmon in the bowl and allow to marinate at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Cover a baking sheet with foil and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray. Place marinated salmon, bell pepper and zucchini on prepared baking sheet. Drizzle on remaining marinade. Roast in oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until salmon is thoroughly cooked.
- While the salmon and vegetables are baking, cook quinoa according to package instructions.
- To make tzatziki sauce: Combine yogurt, dried dill, remaining garlic, the finely diced cucumber and the zest and juice from the second lemon half in a bowl; mix well.
- Distribute cooked quinoa among four bowls and top with roasted salmon and vegetables, plus the chopped cucumber, tomatoes and feta. Serve with a generous dollop of tzatziki sauce.
Nutrition (serves 4): 619 Calories, 21 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 682 milligrams sodium, 56 grams total carbohydrates (7 grams fiber, 5 grams natural sugar), 53 grams protein.
Mediterranean pasta salad with garbanzos
For the pasta salad:
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced
- 1 orange bell pepper, sliced
- 2 regular cucumbers (or 1 large seedless), diced
- 1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup sliced yellow pepperoncini peppers
- 2 cans no-salt-added garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained and rinsed
- 1 pound of whole grain pasta
- 1/2 cup low-sodium olives (can use black, Kalamata, green), sliced
- 1/2 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained and cut in half
- 4 ounces crumbled reduced-fat, low-sodium feta cheese
- Red pepper flakes, to taste
For the Greek dressing:
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (may also use red wine vinegar)
- 1/4 cup organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons fresh or high-quality bottled lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- Pinch of salt
- Cook the pasta al dente according to the package directions.
- Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables; drain and rinse the garbanzos and artichoke hearts; and (if necessary) crumble the feta.
- To make the Greek dressing: Place all dressing ingredients in a large salad bowl and whisk together.
- Add the cooked (and cooled) pasta, vegetables and feta to the salad bowl containing Greek dressing and toss well. Serve immediately, or allow to chill in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes.
Nutrition (serves 10): 404 Calories, 15 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 298 milligrams sodium, 57 grams total carbohydrates (11 grams fiber, 4 grams natural sugar, 2 grams added sugar), 12 grams protein.
Easy lentil veggie burgers
- 1/2 cup dry lentils, cooked according to package instructions
- 1 cup low-sodium garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
- 6 cloves garlic (or less to taste)
- 1/2 cup fresh mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
- 5 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 cup cooked brown rice
- Nonstick cooking spray
- Heat oven to 375 F.
- Add garbanzo beans, garlic, mushrooms and olive oil to food processor. Process 30 seconds, until somewhat uniform. Transfer mixture to a large bowl.
- Add cooked and drained lentils and all other ingredients to the bowl. Mash until contents are nicely mixed, and form into 6 patties.
- Place patties on baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake 20 minutes, flipping once halfway through.
Nutrition (per patty): 175 Calories, 6 grams total fat (0 grams saturated), 180 milligrams sodium, 27 grams total carbohydrates (6 grams fiber, 1 gram natural sugar), 8 grams protein.