Mediterranean Diet Food List: How To Follow The Popular Meal Plan

Unlike other diets, the Mediterranean diet doesn't have strict rules or cut out any food groups.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most popular diets. And there's a reason: The diet helps lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and age-related memory decline.

Unlike other popular diets, the Mediterranean diet doesn't involve strict rules like calorie counting or tracking macronutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Instead, followers consume foods that are part of the traditional diet of people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Those foods include many vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and fish. 

If that sounds like a preferable eating style, here's an overview of the foods that make up the bulk of the Mediterranean diet and the foods you should limit.

Vegetables and Fruits

People who follow the Mediterranean diet eat four or more servings of vegetables daily and three or more servings of fruits. Therefore, produce is an essential staple.

For reference, only 10% of adults in the United States eat two to three cups of vegetables daily. And only 12.3% eat the advised one and a half to two cups of fruit.

The vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer, two of the leading causes of death in the United States.

What's more, fruits and vegetables may also boost your mental health. A 2020 study in the journal Nutrients found that adults who consumed at least five servings of produce daily saw improved sleep, mood, optimism, self-esteem, and happiness. The researchers also observed decreased stress, nervousness, and anxiety.

While that sounds great, eating that much produce in a 24-hour period can be overwhelming. 

So, when deciding what to eat for a meal or snack, start with produce first. Whip leafy greens and fruit into a breakfast smoothie. Swap a lunchtime sandwich for an entree salad, and replace half your dinner portion of pasta with spiralized zucchini or any vegetable. Round the day with snacks like fruits and nuts or vegetables with hummus.

Whole Grains

People who live in the Mediterranean tend to consume three to four servings of whole grains daily, with one serving equal to a half cup of cooked whole grain or slice of bread. 

Some whole grains found in a Mediterranean diet include:

  • Wheat
  • Spelt
  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Barley

A 2018 review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high consumption of whole grains lowers the risk of heart disease, cancer, and overall death. However, in the United States, people get less than 16% of their total daily grains from whole grains.

Try upgrading your refined grains to their whole counterparts. Swap a breakfast pastry for a bowl of oatmeal, opt for brown rice instead of white rice at dinner, or replace your white bread sandwich with a lunchtime salad made with cooked quinoa.

Pulses

Pulses include all varieties of beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. On the Mediterranean diet, three or more servings of pulses are consumed per week. 

And there's a good reason: A 2021 study published in Nutrients found that people who consumed pulses also had higher intakes of fiber, folate, and magnesium than those who didn't. 

Those who consumed 2.5 ounces—roughly a half cup of cooked chickpeas or other pulses—also got more potassium, zinc, iron, and choline, along with lower amounts of fat.

Some examples of pulses in the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Peas

If you're wondering how to incorporate more pulses into your diet, swap them for meat. For example, instead of beef stew, try lentil soup. Or, snack on roasted chickpeas over beef jerky.

Healthy Fats

In the Mediterranean, olive oil—about four tablespoons daily—is a staple in many people's diets. While fat can get a bad rep, the healthy fats found in olive oil are essential for our health. 

A 2019 report published in Nutrients stated, "extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) should, indeed, be the fat of choice when it comes to human health."

Why? Because EVOO consumption helps lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, and inflammatory conditions like ulcerative colitis.

Other healthful Mediterranean fats include avocado (technically a fruit, but still chock full of good fat), nuts, and seeds. On the Mediterranean diet, you should eat nuts or seeds at least three times per week. For reference, a serving size would be one-fourth of a cup of nuts or two tablespoons of nut or seed butter. 

Some common nuts consumed on the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Cashew nuts
  • Hazelnuts
  • Brazil nuts
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Pistachios
  • Macadamias
  • Peanuts

Work those healthy fats into meals and snacks by blending nut butter or avocado into smoothies, dressing salads with EVOO and balsamic vinaigrette, and sautéing vegetables in EVOO instead of butter.

Fish

People following a traditional Mediterranean diet eat three to four ounces of fish about three times per week. 

Some of the most common types of fish consumed include those rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, like:

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Herring
  • Sardines

Research indicates that eating fish can prolong the quantity and quality of life. A 2020 analysis in Nutrients found that for every additional 20 grams of fish consumed per day—about one-fourth of a three-ounce salmon filet—the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease decreased by 4%.

Additionally, a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that a higher fish intake was associated with decreased rates of cognitive decline in older adults. Notably, episodic memory—a type of long-term memory that involves recalling previous experiences with their time, place, and emotions—improved.

Herbs and Spices

Natural seasonings are a vital part of a Mediterranean diet because they offer aroma, color, flavor, added nutrients, and health benefits. 

According to a 2019 review published in the Journal of AOAC International, herbs and spices possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties.

They also lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels and positively impact mood, cognition, and the gut microbiome.

Herbs and spices used liberally in a Mediterranean eating plan include:

Anise Basil Bay Leaf
Chiles Cloves Cumin
Garlic Lavender Marjoram
Mint Oregano Parsley
Pepper Rosemary Sage
Sumac Tarragon Thyme

Have fun experimenting with herbs and spices by trying the following: 

  • Add fresh mint to a smoothie or hot tea.
  • Infuse water with fresh herbs and fruit.
  • Whisk garlic and herbs with oil and vinegar to make a simple homemade vinaigrette.

Foods To Eat In Moderation on the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet also includes moderate portions of poultry, eggs, and dairy—especially fermented dairy like Greek yogurt and kefir. 

So, what does moderate mean? Well, the term varies depending on your personal preference. You might consume very small portions of dairy daily or eat more significant amounts weekly.

Although optional, red wine is traditionally enjoyed daily by Mediterranean eaters. Just stick to one five-ounce glass per day.

Foods To Limit on a Mediterranean Diet

While the Mediterranean diet doesn't require you to cut out one food group or food entirely, it does encourage people to limit or avoid the following items:

  • Red meat: Consumed regularly in small amounts, red meat can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Sweets: In excess, sweets boost the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, and more.
  • Highly processed foods: According to a 2021 study in the journal Nutrients, each 10% increase in calories from highly processed food increased the risk of death by 15% from all causes.

Additionally, here are some specific examples of foods to limit on a Mediterranean Diet, such as:

  • Alcohol, other than red wine, in moderation
  • Bacon
  • Candy
  • Commercial baked goods
  • Fast food
  • Frozen pizza
  • Ham
  • Hotdogs
  • Lunch meat
  • Pepperoni
  • Processed cheese
  • Refined oils
  • Sausage
  • Soda and sugary drinks
  • White bread
  • White pasta
  • White rice

Simple swaps can help curb your intake of these foods. For example, try trading soda for sparkling water, vegetables in place of red meats on pizza, or eating low-sodium canned soups instead of fast food.

A Quick Review

People in the Mediterranean region have been enjoying this type of food plan for centuries thanks to the flavors, variety, and nourishment it offers. There's also a reason why it's currently viewed as one of the best diets for overall health: It relies on foods known to reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, all while improving mood, cognition, and life expectancy.

The key to sticking to the Mediterranean diet is to view it as a lifestyle rather than a quick fix or strict meal plan. Remember that you don't have to give up any one food entirely—instead, try adopting the principles of the diet to fit your individual needs and food preferences.

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Sources
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