x

Unable to process your request

Delicious and surprisingly simple, it’s easy to see why this heart-healthy way of eating is so popular

Less of a “diet”, more of a lifestyle, eating like a Mediterranean offers an easy and delicious way to incorporate a variety of healthy foods into your day.

Reflective of a range of different countries’ traditions and cultures, the popularity of the Mediterranean diet stems from its refreshingly unrestrictive approach and meals that are full of flavour. 

Intrigued? Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating influenced by the traditional habits and cooking practices of those living in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Italy, France, Greece and Cyprus.

It promotes the consumption of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, herbs, and spices, focuses on eating more healthy unsaturated fats and, while it’s largely plant based, it does incorporate fish and seafood as preferred sources of animal protein. 

What foods are included in a Mediterranean diet?

It can vary between countries and regions, however, its core principles mainly consist of eating: 

• Lots of vegetables

• Lots of fruit

• Leaner cuts of meat

• Less red meat

• Fish and seafood

• Minimal processed grains and refined sugars

• Moderate amounts of dairy

• Healthy unsaturated fats like those found in olive oil, nuts and seeds 

• Legumes such as beans and lentils

• Wholegrains

• Herbs and spices

It’s not just food-based, though. The Mediterranean diet also includes drinking plenty of water, and takes inspiration from the cultural and social practices of the countries from which it originates. These include sharing meals with friends and family (perhaps over a glass of red wine), eating mindfully and engaging in regular physical activity.

What is the Mediterranean diet good for?

Due to the nutritional makeup of the foods incorporated in the traditional Mediterranean way of eating, the diet has been linked with a range of benefits including a healthier heart according to the NHS. In fact, it’s very similar to the government’s healthy eating advice as set out in the Eatwell Guide.

Heart health: The Mediterranean diet’s cardiovascular benefits can be attributed to foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish. “These are full of essential fatty acids such as omega-3s,” says nutritional therapist Jackie McCusker.

“There is evidence to suggest that omega-3 essential fatty acids can also improve blood lipids by decreasing triglycerides (a type of fat found in your blood) and increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol, also known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it helps in the removal of other forms of potentially damaging cholesterol including low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol from the blood).” High levels of LDL lipoprotein could raise your risk of high cholesterol which, in turn, can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.  

Oxidative stress: The Mediterranean diet also includes a range of brightly coloured foods to serve up benefits for the heart and the rest of the body. “Their colour denotes their antioxidant content,” explains Jackie, who often recommends a rainbow-inspired diet to her clients. “For example, the antioxidant lycopene is what makes tomatoes red, chlorophyll is what makes leafy vegetables green, carotenoids give carrots and red bell peppers their distinctive colour, and polyphenols are what make blueberries blue. Each may play a role in helping to prevent chronic disease associated with ageing.”

Gut health: Polyphenols – which are considered a prebiotic and therefore increase the population of the bacteria, promoting the health of your gut – can also be found in wholegrains such as brown basmati rice, jumbo whole oats, culinary herbs and spices (especially cloves and peppermint), cocoa powder, legumes, nuts and seeds. “These travel undigested to the gut where they can benefit the microbiome by encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria,” highlights Jackie.

As you can see, there are plenty of potential nutritional benefits that can be gained from a Mediterranean diet. However, Jackie stresses that it’s important not to focus on individual nutrients, vitamins and minerals too much. “It’s the synergistic aspect that makes this diet work so well,” she explains. “It’s more than a sum of its parts. For example, nuts are full of different vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids, but nuts’ natural fats are what help fat soluble nutrients to be absorbed by the body.”

Do you lose weight on the Mediterranean diet?

Due to its wide variety of satiating foods and less restrictive ethos, the Mediterranean diet may offer a more sustainable form of healthy eating and weight control. “Portion size and regular exercise are very important though,” cautions Jackie. “The traditional Mediterranean diet, in its truest sense, focuses on a healthy balance of macronutrients on a plate.” It will be predominantly vegetable-based with servings of wholegrains and healthy fats alongside a good source of protein. “Aim for 50% of your plate to be vegetable-based,” Jackie advises as a general rule of thumb. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach though, and factors such as age and individual needs should be considered. 

What foods are not allowed on the Mediterranean diet?

Refined and processed foods are to be kept to a minimum on the Mediterranean diet. This offers up more nutritional benefits. “When whole wheat is refined, the outer husk is removed and so is its fibre content and nutrients such as B vitamins,” explains Jackie. 
Dairy and red meat should ideally be limited. “This could be because of their saturated fat content,” says Jackie. She highlights that some saturated fat in your diet isn’t a bad thing though. According to the NHS, a small amount of fat (no more than 30g a day for men, 20g a day for women) provides a valuable source of essential fatty acids. This is important because the body cannot make essential fatty acids itself. What’s more, fat also helps the body absorb vitamins A, D and E, which can only be absorbed with its help.  

How do you start the Mediterranean diet?

Here are Jackie’s top tips and food swaps for making your meals more Mediterranean, without switching to expensive organic or grass-fed ingredients. 

Eat a rainbow of seasonal veg: “This is because their colour denotes their antioxidant content. The greater the range, the better; and try to eat as seasonally as possible.”

Swap white potatoes for sweet potatoes. “They have a lower glycaemic index (GI) and therefore don’t have such a huge effect on blood sugar levels. Their orange colour denotes their beta-carotene content.” Beta-carotene is turned into vitamin A by the body, which can support the immune system. 

Swap out white rice for brown basmati rice. “This can help with blood sugar control as it has a lower glycaemic index and more fibre.”

Swap breakfast cereal for oats: “Try making homemade granola or buy granola that is oat-based and low in sugar.”

Limit red meat consumption to once a week at first: “If you are currently eating a diet that is high in red meat, slowly reduce it – incrementally is always best. When you do eat it though, ensure that it’s lean and high-quality.” 

Up your oily fish intake: “Try mackerel, anchovies and sardines.” Oily fish may contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body, so for certain groups there are maximum NHS recommendations. Girls, women who are planning a pregnancy or may have a child one day and those who are pregnant and breastfeeding are advised to eat no more than two portions of oily fish a week. “Shellfish are also a great source of micronutrients,” says Jackie.

Dairy: “Try full-fat Greek yoghurt with granola and berries.”

Eat eggs: “They’re a brilliant source of amino acids and protein.”  

Limit chicken: “To once or twice a week.”

Eat more wholegrains: “Try a wholemeal loaf over white bread.”

Introduce lentils into your diet: “It’s a great way to up your legume intake.” Try adding them to salads or making a dahl.

Swap milk chocolate for dark chocolate: “It’s rich in polyphenols – aim for 70% cocoa content (but limit your intake to a few squares).

Enjoy a glass of red wine (occasionally): “Although red wine contains polyphenols, be mindful of how much you drink. I advise having a minimum of two non-drinking days a week and always have your wine with a meal as food acts as a buffer for alcohol.” Remember, men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis. Spread your drinking over three or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week.

The best Mediterranean diet recipes to try right now

Feeling inspired? Here are four delicious and healthy Mediterranean diet recipes to get started with.

Mediterranean diet breakfast recipe idea: Zesty Za’atar Avocado Toast with Poached Egg, by Brynn McDowell


Serves one

INGREDIENTS

1 avocado, pitted and peeled 

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice 

1 tsp za’atar, divided 1 egg (the freshest egg possible is best here) 

1 tbsp white vinegar 

1 slice wholegrain bread

1 tbsp harissa

Fresh basil, for garnish 


METHOD

Place the avocado in a small bowl. Mash it with the back of a fork. Add the lemon juice and 1⁄2 teaspoon of the za’atar, and stir to combine. Set it aside. 


Line a plate with a paper towel. Crack the egg into a small ramekin and set it aside. Fill a medium saucepan with 3 cups (720ml) of water and bring to a boil over a high heat. Once the water is boiling, reduce the heat to low and add the white vinegar. Use a spoon to stir the water, creating a small whirlpool in the pan. Carefully pour the egg directly from the ramekin into the centre of the swirling water. Once the egg is in the saucepan, put your bread in the toaster while the egg cooks. 

Allow the egg to cook for three minutes for a runny egg yolk. If you like a more well-done egg, add another minute of cooking time. Once the egg is finished, remove it from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer it to the lined plate. 

While your egg cools slightly, spread the avocado mixture over your toast. Spread the harissa over the avocado and sprinkle with the remaining za’atar. Place the poached egg on top of the avocado toast, and garnish with a little bit of fresh basil. 

Tip: Harissa is sold in many supermarkets and online. If you can’t find it, substitute for hot sauce or regular chilli paste. 

Recipe printed with permission from The Mediterranean Diet Made Easy by Brynn McDowell (Page Street Publishing Co. 2020, £17.99)


Photography by Brynn McDowell

Mediterranean diet lunch recipe idea: Warm French Lentil Salad with Dijon, by Brynn McDowell 


Serves four

INGREDIENTS

384g small dried green lentils 

1 lemon, zested and juiced

4 garlic cloves, minced

51g Dijon mustard

60ml extra virgin olive oil 

1⁄4 tsp salt 

1⁄4 tsp pepper 

15g chopped fresh Italian parsley 

12g chopped fresh chives  


METHOD

Place the green lentils in a large pot and cover with 720ml of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes. The lentils should be soft and tender, but not mushy. Once the lentils are cooked, drain them and place them in a large bowl. 


While the lentils are cooking, create your Dijon dressing. In a small bowl, combine the lemon zest and juice, garlic, Dijon mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir well to combine. 

Pour the Dijon dressing directly over the bowl of warm, cooked lentils and mix well. Allow the salad to cool just slightly before adding the parsley and chives. 

Recipe printed with permission from The Mediterranean Diet Made Easy by Brynn McDowell (Page Street Publishing Co. 2020, £17.99)


Photography by Brynn McDowell

Mediterranean diet chicken recipe for dinner: One-Pot Paprika Chicken With Olives and Orzo, by Samantha Ferraro 


Serves two to four

INGREDIENTS

384g small dried green lentils 

1 lemon, zested and juiced

4 garlic cloves, minced

51g Dijon mustard

60ml extra virgin olive oil 

1⁄4 tsp salt 

1⁄4 tsp pepper 

15g chopped fresh Italian parsley 

12g chopped fresh chives  


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C)


In a bowl, toss the chicken with the paprika and salt, making sure the spices evenly coat the chicken.

Heat a large skillet over a medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Don’t add too much oil because the chicken will give off its own fat.

Once the oil is hot, place the chicken thighs skin-side down into the hot pan and cook until a deep golden brown (about three to four minutes) and then flip the chicken over and cook for an additional three minutes.

Once both sides of the chicken are a deep golden brown, remove to a plate and set aside. In the same hot skillet, add the shallot and sauté until lightly golden (about two to three minutes). Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. 

Add the orzo and stir so it is coated in the oil and aromatics (this will give it great flavour). Use a spatula to even out the orzo. Add the chicken back into the pan, skin-side up and pour in the stock.

Scatter the lemon slices and olives over the chicken and orzo and place in the oven, covered, for 25 minutes. Remove the cover and continue cooking for an additional 12 to 15 minutes.

Once cooked, remove from the oven and garnish with parsley.

Tip: if you can’t find Castelvetrano olives, substitute with the easier-to-find green manzanilla olives.

Reprinted with permission from The Weeknight Mediterranean Kitchen by Samantha Ferraro (Page Street Publishing Co. 2018, £16.99)


Photo credit: Samantha Ferraro

Mediterranean diet salad recipe idea: Roasted Beetroot Salad with Feta and Walnuts, by Melanie Lionello


Serves four to six

INGREDIENTS

For the beetroots:

5 beetroots

60ml extra virgin olive oil 

1 small bunch of red seedless grapes 

100g feta cheese

2 tbsp torn mint leaves 

3 tbsp chopped parsley 

125g walnuts  

For the dressing:

60ml extra virgin olive oil

2 1⁄2 tbsp red wine vinegar 

Salt and cracked black pepper, to taste


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).


Cut the leaves off the beetroots and scrub the beetroots clean in a sink of water. Rinse them, then place into a heavy saucepan and drizzle with the olive oil. 

Bake for up to one hour, checking at 45 minutes to see if they are tender and cooked through by gently poking a skewer into one. If not quite done, put them back into the oven and check them again in five-minute increments until they are ready.

Let the beetroots cool until you can handle them, and carefully peel the skins off. I find a paring knife really helps here. Quarter the beetroots and arrange them in a serving dish. 

Pluck the grapes off their stems and sprinkle them over the beetroots. Crumble the feta over them, and sprinkle the mint and parsley. Add the walnuts.

To make the dressing, combine the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl, and pour over the salad to dress it. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste and serve. 

Reprinted with permission from Frugal Mediterranean Cooking by Melanie Lionello (Page Street Publishing Co. 2020, £16.92)


Photo credit: Melanie Lionello

Photography: Istock