What Is the Green Mediterranean Diet—And Should You Try It?

  • The green Mediterranean diet is a newer take on the standard Mediterranean diet that may provide additional health benefits.
  • The green Mediterranean diet is still based on the foods familiar to the original Mediterranean diet, but scales even further back on meat in favor of plant-based foods.
  • Research has shown that the green Mediterranean diet may help lower blood pressure, reduce insulin resistance, and increase loss of visceral fat, among other benefits.
chickpea salad with pita bread

Stocksy/Cameron Whitman

You’ve probably heard of the standard Mediterranean diet, but a “green” version—known simply as the green Mediterranean diet—is a newer concept that has steadily gained momentum in the last few years.

In broad strokes, you can think of a green Mediterranean diet as a mashup of a traditional Mediterranean diet and a plant-based diet. It takes the usual healthy fare of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and tweaks them by scaling even further back on meat in favor of plant foods. 

Still, there’s more to this eating plan than just “Mediterranean minus meat.” And with its unique guidelines around specific foods, this version of the Med diet could be even healthier than the original. Here’s everything you need to know about a green Mediterranean diet.

What is the Green Mediterranean Diet?

To grasp the idea behind a green Mediterranean diet, it’s helpful to first understand the basic principles of a traditional Mediterranean diet.

According to the food and nutrition nonprofit Oldways, which created the original Mediterranean diet food pyramid in 1993, a Med diet focuses on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices, two or more servings weekly of fish and seafood, and occasional servings of meat and dairy. Sweets and processed foods are also kept to a minimum.

A green Mediterranean diet takes this outline and shifts it in a more plant-based direction.

“The green Mediterranean diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet in that it’s centered around whole, plant-based foods and includes little or no meat and animal products,” Ashley Kitchens, MPH, RDN, plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Centered Nutrition, told Health. Though a serving of meat, fish, or eggs here or there is allowed on a green Mediterranean diet, it’s frequently supplanted by other protein sources like tofu, beans, nuts, or quinoa.

The differences don’t stop there. Though you could call any plant-forward Mediterranean diet “green,” if you want to be official about it, you’ll need to include a few surprising extras. “On the green Mediterranean diet, you specifically need to incorporate about 7 walnuts per day (or 28 grams), 3 to 4 cups of green tea per day, and a daily shake with 100 grams of Mankai duckweed,” Kitchens said.

Why the addition of these oddly specific ingredients? The concept was created in 2020 by a team of researchers who had identified the heart health benefits of each of these foods. They then performed research that showed a “green” Mediterranean diet featuring these supplements amplified the cardiometabolic benefits of the usual Med diet.

Walnuts and green tea are common enough foods, but you might not be familiar with Mankai duckweed. “Mankai, which is a favorite food to ducks and fish, is a high-protein plant that grows in water and is a member of the duckweed family,” explained Kitchens. Some have called it a “supergreen” for its purported benefits for blood sugar and heart health.

Potential Benefits of a Green Mediterranean Diet

The researchers who developed the concept of a green Mediterranean diet theorized it would have heart health perks—and they weren’t wrong.

Their 2020 study in the journal Heart revealed that people who followed this eating plan for six months had lower blood pressure and lower LDL cholesterol than people on a regular Med diet. This research also revealed some unexpected-but-impressive additional benefits. Those who ate according to green Med standards had reduced insulin resistance, lower levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), and, in men, greater reductions in waist circumference.

On the heels of this original research, a 2022 study in BMC Medicine highlighted even more potential advantages of going green. In analyzing 18 months of dietary patterns, researchers found that people on a green Mediterranean diet doubled their loss of visceral fat, compared to people on a traditional Mediterranean diet. (This dangerous fat is the kind that accumulates in the abdomen and has been linked to metabolic disturbance, increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer.)  

Beyond benefits for your physical health, a green Med diet has enhanced power for planetary health. When you cut back on meat, you’ll significantly reduce your contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2019 study in Advances in Nutrition, people who switched from an omnivorous diet to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian one lowered personal greenhouse gas emissions by 35%.

Are There Any Downsides to a Green Mediterranean Diet? 

A green Mediterranean diet appears to be a healthy choice for just about anyone. “For most individuals, the green Med diet is an acceptable eating pattern with few drawbacks,” dietitian Sarah Pflugradt, MS, RDN, CSCS, told Health.

But if you’re new to plant-based eating, you might run into some hiccups. “Some people may find switching completely a little daunting at first, as there tends to be slightly more meal preparation and cooking when switching to a diet higher in plant foods,” said Pflugradt.

In that case, she recommends starting with small steps. and even trying shortcuts like buying prewashed greens, frozen veggies, and seasoned rice.

Vegetarian diets also may require more planning to obtain enough of certain nutrients. “Those who require more iron from their diet may find it challenging in the absence of red meat, but proper planning can ensure you receive all the iron you need from other foods,” said Pflugradt. And if you choose to remove all animal products from your diet, you might need to supplement with vitamin B12.

An extra layer of challenge could simply stem from the limited availability of Mankai duckweed. With a bit of googling, you can find online retailers who sell it, but it’s not necessarily stocked at your local grocery store (and is likely to be pricey, no matter where you purchase it).

Fortunately, according to Kitchens, there’s no need to worry if Mankai isn’t sold at your local market. “You can reap cardiometabolic benefits without consuming 100 grams of Mankai duckweed daily,” she said. “There are a lot of other plant-based proteins such as tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, and nuts that provide a host of nutritional benefits.”

Is the Green Mediterranean Diet Worth Trying?

For decades, the Mediterranean diet has been well established as a healthy eating pattern—so is its newer, greener offshoot worth giving a whirl for even greater benefits? Possibly.

“It’s a diet pattern that contains a wide variety of food and emphasizes plant-based eating, which is beneficial for everyone,” said Pflugradt. “The green Med diet provides a large variety of foods from all the food groups, and that's really what we can hope for in a healthy diet pattern.”

Pflugradt also praised the eating plan for its flexibility of merely limiting (but not completely nixing) animal proteins, making it easier to follow both at home and in social situations.

And if a green Mediterranean diet sounds intriguing, but you’re not quite on board with its unusual extras, Kitchens has a solution: “I recommend starting with the standard Mediterranean diet first. If it’s going well and you’re feeling great and want to give the green Mediterranean diet a go, do it. If you get overwhelmed with the ‘rules’ of having to eat walnuts and drink green tea and a Mankai duckweed shake daily, then go back to the typical Mediterranean diet.”

Whichever you choose, you can hardly go wrong with a plate full of nutritious whole foods.

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Sources
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  1. Tsaban G, Yaskolka Meir A, Rinott E, et al. The effect of green Mediterranean diet on cardiometabolic risk; a randomised controlled trialHeart. 2021;107(13). doi:10.1136/heartjnl-2020-317802

  2. Zelicha H, Kloting N, Kaplan A, et al. The effect of high-polyphenol Mediterranean diet on visceral adiposity: the DIRECT PLUS randomized controlled trialBMC Med. 2022;20(1):327. doi:10.1186/s12916-022-02525-8

  3. Harvard Health Publishing. Abdominal fat and what to do about it.

  4. Fresán U, Sabaté J. Vegetarian diets: planetary health and its alignment with human healthAdv Nutr. 2019;10(Suppl_4):S380-S388. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz019

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