What are the Essential Features of a Mediterranean Diet?

What are the Essential Features of a Mediterranean Diet?

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A sample Mediterranean diet meal

The Mediterranean diet is more than just a “diet,” it is a lifestyle. It is also a wise plan to follow. notes that health benefits of the Mediterranean diet include a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease, cancer and Parkinson's disease, as well as improved cardiovascular health. In fact, a 2013 "New England Journal of Medicine" study of more than 7,000 people at risk for heart disease found a significant reduction in heart attack and stroke among those following a Mediterranean diet.

Plant-based Foods

The Mediterranean diet is largely plant-based; most meals are based around fresh fruits and vegetables. Buy a variety of local and in-season produce, when possible, to boost the health benefits. Include legumes frequently to increase your consumption of fiber and protein, along with nuts and seeds, which add a dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Legumes, nuts and seeds can also be pureed to make savory spreads that pack a nutritious punch. Think pureed chickpeas and tahini to make hummus; walnuts with basil for pesto; or pureed white beans, olive oil and herbs for a flavorful vegetable dip.

Grains in the Mediterranean region are minimally processed. Choose whole grain breads plus a variety of other whole grains, including oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, and buckwheat to boost nutrition. Farro, an ancient grain that has been grown and used in Italy for centuries, is another nutritious option. It must be soaked before cooking and can be used in place of pasta or rice in soups or salads.


Olive oil is the main source of added fat on the Mediterranean diet, replacing saturated fats like butter and the hydrogenated or transfats, often found in processed foods. When possible, choose virgin or extra-virgin olive oil to get the most antioxidants. Use olive oil drizzled on salads, to sautГ© vegetables and to marinate fish or poultry before cooking to boost flavor.

Go Fish

Fish, poultry and eggs are the recommended sources of animal protein, with an emphasis on fish, which you should consume at least twice a week. Limit your red meat consumption to a few servings per month and only include lean cuts. Choose fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and trout when possible; they are rich in DHA omega-3 fats, which the body cannot synthesize on its own. Pregnant women, women who might become pregnant and children should consume fish low in contaminants and mercury. Avoid predator fish such as shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel.

Wine and Sweets

The traditional Mediterranean diet includes red wine in moderation, which means no more than 5 ounces of wine per day for women, and 5 to 10 ounces per day for men. This part of the plan is optional; check with your doctor to find out if wine is appropriate for you. For dessert, choose mostly fresh fruits or fruit salad. Limit high-sugar foods, many of which are also high in saturated fat. The Mediterranean plan and lifestyle is all about fresh, flavorful foods that are minimally processed. Combined with regular physical activity, it's a lifelong plan that many people find to be easy and enjoyable.

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