The news about the Mediterranean diet keeps getting better. Two studies were recently published about the less-known benefits of the popular eating plan: In one, men who followed the diet had a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer, and in the other, longtime followers had a reduced risk of becoming frail in old age.
Those are in addition to the already large amount of evidence linking the Mediterranean diet to other health benefits, and a recent distinction of Best Diet for 2018 by U.S. News and World Report.
But what exactly is the Mediterranean diet? Unlike trademarked and commercialized plans that require books, calculations and very specific rules, the Mediterranean diet is more of a general eating pattern and lifestyle, says Suzy Weems, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition science at Baylor University.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t guidelines to follow, however. Here are the foods you can eat on the Mediterranean diet and how to eat them—plus, why it’s so popular with doctors, dietitians and foodies alike.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
There’s no one book or website to follow if you want to learn about the Mediterranean diet, and there’s no one way to structure a meal plan around it. But in general, says Weems, the Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and lean sources of animal protein. It’s low in red meat and other saturated fats, and it contains few processed foods or refined sugars.
The Mediterranean diet also includes alcohol in moderation—traditionally, wine with meals—and encourages sitting down to meals as a family or a group, rather than rushing through them on-the-go.
In other words, it’s based on the traditional diet of people in Mediterranean countries, like Italy and Spain. “Fruits and vegetable are front and center,” says Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Medical Center. “It’s not like the typical American meal of meat and potatoes or meat and pasta.”
Why it’s so good for you
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to numerous health benefits over the years. Long-term studies have found that people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and breast cancer, to name a few.
While many of these studies have been observational, and therefore could not establish cause-and-effect relationships, experts say it’s not surprising that the diet’s emphasis on whole, plant-based foods could deliver these results. “It focuses on foods that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and we know that’s important for the prevention of disease,” says Weinandy.
Research also suggests that Mediterranean-style diets may help treat acid reflux, improve cholesterol levels and even extend lifespan. And even though it’s not a low-fat diet, it’s also been shown to help people lose weight—even when they weren’t counting calories.
Now, in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, scientists have found that seniors who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet were the least likely to be become frail over a four-year study period. Recently, in the Journal of Urology, researchers also found that men who followed a diet rich in fish, produce and olive oil—and low in juice—had a lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer than those who followed low-fat or typical Western diets.
What should you eat, and how?
If you want to incorporate elements of the Mediterranean diet into your life, Weems recommends starting by adding more fruits and vegetables. “The recommendation is to get around nine servings of produce a day, and most people aren’t reaching that number,” she says. “If you’re drinking wine and eating olive oil but you’re not adding the fruit and veggies, you’re not getting the most important benefits.”
As part of your produce consumption, try to include a few cups of leafy green veggies every week, says Weinandy. Then, look to eat a variety of red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables; that will ensure you’re getting a broad mix of phytochemicals and other important nutrients.
Nuts and legumes are an important component as well. Mix them into salads or cereal, spread almond or peanut butter on a slice of whole-grain bread or eat them—raw or roasted—as a snack. Just remember that nuts are high in fat and calories, so limit yourself to about half a cup a day, says Weinandy.
Take a similar approach to other types of healthy fats. “It’s great to cook with olive oil instead of butter or margarine, but you can’t have a whole quart of it with your bread,” says Weems. The same goes for avocados. “They’re great to eat in moderation, but it’s important to find a balance,” she says.
Bread and pasta also have a place in the Mediterranean diet, but choose whole-grain and whole-wheat options over white and refined grains. “They add fiber and bulk to the diet, which can help you feel full faster,” says Weems.
When it comes to animal protein, turn to lean options like chicken and fish. Eggs, cheese and yogurt are also typical components of the Mediterranean diet. And in addition to the occasional glass of wine, says Weems, drink lots of water.
Overall, shopping for the Mediterranean diet means shopping for whole foods. “You’re not eating very many foods that come in bags and boxes,” Weinandy says. “I tell people to go to the grocery store and look for foods you can buy and prepare in their natural form, or as close to it as possible.”
The Mediterranean diet doesn’t require you to count calories or measure out portions. If you’re trying to lose weight, however, Weems recommends talking to a nutritionist about whether keeping track of your daily numbers might be helpful.
There’s no required schedule of meals and snacks, either, but the diet does emphasize the social aspect of eating—like sitting down at a table with friends or family. “When you talk about the pillars of the Mediterranean lifestyle, diet is only part of it,” says Weinandy. “Regular social interaction and staying active with exercise are also really important.”