What does the Mediterranean diet consist of? What can you eat on the Mediterranean diet? Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Mediterranean diet expert Ale Zozos answers your questions and busts some big myths along the way!
This is a guest post by Ale Zozos, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Opinions are fully her own. Bio included below the post.
So you want to start on the Mediterranean diet but you're not sure of one major thing: What can you eat?
What does the Mediterranean diet consist of?
The Mediterranean diet is a pattern of eating that focuses more on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, lean proteins from fish and poultry, good fats from olive oil, and some dairy, while limiting consumption of sweets and red meats.
To dig a bit deeper into the ins and outs of eating this way, I asked registered dietitian nutritionist Ale Zozos, who also comes from a big Greek family and has eaten this way from an early age, to walk us through what is included in a Mediterranean diet plan through a dietitian's lens (Ale is sharing her thoughts below as an expert in this field, all opinions are her own).
Eat more plant-based foods
To start, the Mediterranean diet is a plant-forward diet, which means it is high in plant-based foods. This does not mean you have to become vegetarian or go vegan to eat the Mediterranean way, it simply means you want to get more plant-based foods in your diet - think rainbow eating! Other important plant-based foods to eat on the Mediterranean diet include:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Herbs and spices
- Quality Extra-virgin olive oil
The CDC reported that the vast majority of Americans (about 90%) don’t get enough fruits and vegetables in their diets. So, just increasing your fruit and vegetable intake is a great place to start!
Eat some fish and lean proteins, moderately
Once you get a solid foundation from eating more plant-based foods, fill in the gaps by consuming foods that provide good lean proteins, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, fiber. Eat the following in moderate amounts:
- Fatty fish (2 times per week)
- Lean poultry
- Some dairy
- Cheese (avoid highly processed cheeses, however)
Avoid processed foods
One of the things that happen more naturally when eating the Mediterranean diet is that we end up eliminating, or at least limiting, harmful processed foods. By getting more of the good stuff-- plants, lean proteins, and good fats-- we naturally reduce our intake of unhealthy processed foods that are high in sodium, refined sugar, and saturated fat - dietary patterns that when over consumed can lead to weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart problems.
Carbs, fats, and proteins: Micronutrients and the Mediterranean diet
No, we are not about to count macros here. Macronutrients are the nutrients we want to consume in the largest quantities and that provide us with energy (calories). There are three macros - protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram while fat provides 9 calories per gram.
Each of these macros has a place in our diets and it’s not in the “counting” sense you may previously have heard. It’s also important to note that every single person’s ideal range will vary and depend on sex, age, physical activity, height, weight, and body composition.
You have to understand that carbohydrates will make up the largest portion of our diets (generally, about 45-65% of your daily intake). But these are not carbs as we think of them in a Western diet like pizza, fries, chips, or refined snacks. On the Mediterranean diet, these are primarily from nutritious foods, plant-based carbs like fruit, veggies, whole grains, beans, legumes, and some animal derived carbs like yogurt and milk.
Since fats are the most nutrient-dense (provides the most energy), we don’t need as much throughout the day (generally, about 20-35% of your daily intake from good fats). This is where my favorite use of extra-virgin olive comes into play. We can easily meet our fat goal by cooking with EVOO - yes it’s perfectly safe to cook with, or drizzling some on top of our home-cooked meals. Also include some fat from fatty fish like salmon, herring, tuna, nuts, seeds, cheese, and full-fat dairy products.
Protein is needed the least amount but still very important. You can meet your protein needs through a mix of plant-based and animal-based foods. Plant-based sources of protein include nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, whole grains, and soy foods and products like edamame and tofu. Just because something doesn’t come from the region of the Mediterranean doesn't mean you can’t have it. Animal sources of protein include fatty fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy.
Mediterranean diet myths busted!
Before we wrap things up today, I wanted to leave with you with some busted myths you may have heard:
- Myth 1: The Mediterranean diet does not work outside the Mediterranean
False! This sensible way of eating is easy to implement no matter where you live. Most ingredients used in Mediterranean cooking, from produce to fish, nuts, seeds, and grains, are available in most grocery stores.
- Myth 2: You can't eat red meat or sweets
False! Red meats and sweets are not entirely sworn off when following the Mediterranean diet, but they are consumed less frequently and in smaller quantities.
- Myth 2: You can only eat fresh produce
False! A vegetable in any form is better than not. When fresh produce is in season and available at a good price, of course it is great to buy. But quality frozen produce, picked and flash-frozen at its peak, is a great way to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables without ruining your budget. You can make the choice.
- Myth 3: You have to cook everything from scratch
False! In Mediterranean cooking, there are many ways to use canned beans, chickpeas, sauces, and more to save time in a pinch. Give your beans a quick rinse before using them in a delicious minestrone or ribollita. And another thing that you can buy ready is rotisserie chicken. In a pinch, I've turned it into a healthy chicken salad and even thrown it in avgolemono soup.
- Myth 4: You can't cook with olive oil
False! Olive oil is the cooking fat of choice for many Mediterranean countries. It might lose some of its unique flavor during cooking, but quality olive oil does not become unhealthy, and depending on the quality of the oil and cooking temperature, you can use it more often than you think. How can you tell if your EVOO is good quality? Give it a taste! It should taste great and should give a little burn in the back of the throat.
As you can see, there are no definitive diet rules, just general guidelines and principles to help you get the most variety out of your unique Mediterranean eating plan. A balance of all macros is what makes the Mediterranean diet ideal for weight loss, glucose and lipid management, and the prevention of major cardiovascular events. Plus you don’t have to make everything from scratch or spend your savings improving your health. Sounds like a win-win to me!
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About Ale Zozos, MS, RDN
Ale Zozos is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and expert on the Mediterranean Diet who comes from a large Greek family and has lived the Mediterranean way since a young age. She believes nutrition education is the foundation to behavior change and knows that with accountability and SMART goal-setting, a Mediterranean way of eating can help her clients improve their clinical outcomes. She founded the Mediterranean Nutrition School - a platform for virtual nutrition coaching geared towards helping those with insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart conditions, and weight loss.
We hope you enjoyed this guest post by Ale Zozos who shared her own expert opinions in this post. She is not affiliated with this site. Readers assume full responsibility for consulting their own qualified health professional regarding health conditions, concerns, or anything else before starting a new way of eating or diet.
I have become allergic to citrus, citric acid and even vitamin C in the last 3 years. Is there a substitute that can be used in its place?
I agree with the "myths" you have to use it fresh ingredients, If you want the health benefits that is. You don't eat anything canned and yes it has to be fresh. I am wanting to follow it because of the health reasons which have been researched, they did that by studying the people that live in the country not the people that live outside of the country, You also forgot to mention an abundance of fresh olives and olive oil made locally. Their chickens are also free ranging eating all the same things they eat in the garden. And they also eat a lot of herbs native to their country - bitter herbs fresh from the garden. They make all their own cheese and diary, and everything is made by themselves, nothing is imported except maybe rice
Hi, I was just wondering with the Free - e-Cookbook, do you have to base the diet on what you weight before you begin?
Thanks in advance, JOY
Hi, Joy. The e-cookbook is just intended to be a collection of some of our best recipes here at The Mediterranean Dish, not necessarily a guide for weight loss, specifically. If that is your goal, I recommend speaking to a dietitian or nutritionist who might better understand your needs and help you on that journey. Something to remember is that the Mediterranean “Diet” is a lifestyle for longer-term health benefits. It’s more of a way of eating/living, not so much a traditional diet. Weight loss is often a bonus, but it is not the complete focus. You may also want to check out this post on the blog for even more info: What is the Mediterranean Diet and How to Follow It .
I love all the Mediterranean dishes you share and the great information! Makes it easy to follow and prepare. I am curious about the macros - even though you don't really count them in the Mediterranean diet. I already eat tons of veggies and I am trying to change from the fat-free & low-fat to full fat varieties of certain foods. My only concern is the protein being the lowest macros. I weightlift on an almost daily basis and the meal plan I used to follow is more like 40-50% protein, then carbs, then fats. I am fine with the adjusting for fats, it's just healthier not modifying foods from their original form and trying to make them low or fat-free. But making sure I get enough protein to maintain muscles. This might be out of your wheel house, but just thought I'd ask you for any information. It's difficult to find online.
Thanks so much in advance and can't wait to make some of your recipes!
Hi, Nancy! So glad to hear you are enjoying the recipes, and you're finding the info we share helpful. Unfortunately, the issue of macros is way out of my wheel-house :). I think your best bet would be to speak with a nutrition specialist. Sorry I can't be of more help with this one.
Thanks for the reply, Suzie, appreciate it! I see a lot of information out there related to a Mediterranean lifestyle and still being able to lose weight, which is just as important to me as the protein issue. I guess if I use your serving size and make it for 2 and save 1 serving for later, I'll be good to go. Going shopping & hoping for some pounds disappearing. 🙂 Thanks again! Nancy
We pretty much eat a veggie version of this dish. Such a healthy diet!
Thank you for writing this post, I live in Italy and I just love the way people cooks here. Is not all about pasta and pizza as many think of Italian gastronomy, there are lots of veggies and they add them even to pizza (ortolana pizza is one of my favs).
I really enjoyed having a read of all of this info and your knowledge is excellent! I love using olive oil in my recipes and salmon too. Thanks for sharing, I will take on board your advice. Cheers
This was very informative and helpful. Can't wait to start our change to a Mediterranean diet.
Thanks so much, Andrea!
I just arrived here on your website! Thank you for sharing all the good food to eat for the Mediterranean diet. I heard of it for years but have not "totally" followed it. I do eat vegetables, fruit and nuts and try to keep the sugar even though I use raw sugar and brown sugar and keep the salt low of using Sea salt. My friend suffered a stroke and I want him to eat healthy. He has been eating too much salty foods and or salt from foods that are processed and bought from restaurants of the wrong kind! I eat organic fruits and veggies and nuts and try to not eat too much salt and sugar. I had to get him to lower the content and change his diet but he seem not to want to change. Being stubborn and that is not good that leads to bad health. I pray for him to recover soon.
You are a good friend, Charmaine! Change is very hard, especially when talking about food. Keep up the encouragement. Many blessings to you both!!
I would like to print this article. How can I do that without the ads?
Hi, Susan! You would have to somehow disable the ads from your browser and then print using the browser's print function.
Susuan,if you hold the left button on your mouse,highlight what you want to print, then right click..A pop up should then come up,left click "Print" and you should be ok..:)
I love your recipes!
Love to hear it, Gina! Thanks so much!
Great article. Love the pyramid and my plate graphs. So much better than the government produced versions.
Thanks, Sonja! Glad you found it helpful!
Following a heart intervention where they, had to put in 2 stents , my heart doctor requested that I get on the Mediterranean Diet which I knew nothing about. I’ve been eating the Mediterranean way since 2011 and I found Suzy in march 2020 what a great find! We have loved every meal we made so far. i’m so glad I found this site. I also love that I learn different cooking skills thanks to Suzy’s wonderful tips.
I was diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia and I love to help people who have this problem to eat better and not feel like they can’t eat anything but show them that we have alot of alternatives with Mediterranean diet which by the way is not a diet but a new way of eating better ,I call this a new healthy lifestyle!
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge on how to eat healthy without feeling deprived!
Thank you for the sweet message, Diane! It is very much appreciated and helps keep me motivated! I love hearing that you enjoy the recipes you've found on The Mediterranean Dish! Many blessings to you!
So glad! Thanks, John!