Mediterranean Diet Beginners Guide: Benefits & Tips

This beginners' guide to the Mediterranean Diet will teach you everything you need to know.

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by
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN
— Signos
Health & Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
January 25, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Does a meal full of vibrant vegetables drizzled with olive oil, fresh fish, and a glass of red wine sound good to you? Say hello to the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is more than just a way of eating, it's a lifestyle filled with flavor and good health. Eating like the people in coastal Mediterranean regions has been linked to improved heart health, decreased risk of cancer, and a longer life expectancy—all without feeling deprived.

The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that it can be adapted to include the foods you enjoy eating. There's no perfect way to eat for every person, but following the overarching goals of the Mediterranean diet can help you make smart food choices. Plus, it's consistently recommended by health experts and physicians. 

Curious about the Mediterranean diet pattern but aren't sure where to start? We've got you covered. Below you'll find a complete Mediterranean diet beginners' guide, including why it's so beneficial, what food to include, plus a sample meal plan to keep things simple.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

The Mediterranean diet is an eating pattern modeled after the traditional diets of people living in countries around the Mediterranean Sea. These include Italy, Greece, Spain, and southern France.

Now don't let the word "diet" throw you off. In this case, "diet" simply means a way of eating that highlights certain foods and beverages, but it's not about calories or deprivation. It's also important to note that the foundational principles of the Mediterranean diet can be adapted to fit your personal needs and tastes. So if there's a food you aren't used to eating or isn't a staple for your culture, you can modify the Mediterranean Diet to include foods you like. 

It emphasizes minimally processed foods, fiber-rich grains, brightly colored produce, lean protein (especially fish), and healthy fats. These foods contain nutrients like antioxidants and polyphenols that may reduce inflammation and protect against chronic diseases.,

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Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Supports Heart Health

Cardiovascular protection is one of the main reasons people are pro-Mediterranean diet. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and the polyphenols in extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, and wine may reduce inflammation and protect your heart., Eating more fiber can also help lower blood cholesterol levels.

Studies suggest that following the Mediterranean diet may help reduce markers of inflammation linked to heart disease. Since heart disease risk factors include many metabolic health markers—blood sugar, inflammation, lipid levels—the Mediterranean may be especially protective because it appears to benefit all of them.

Encourages Weight-Loss

Eating more fruits, veggies, and unprocessed foods means you take in more fiber, vitamins, and micronutrients. Eating more nutrient-dense foods can also help keep you fuller for longer and may help with weight loss. 

Studies comparing the Mediterranean diet to other diet patterns show it works as well, if not better, than other popular diets. In some research, the Mediterranean diet also supports weight loss maintenance beyond a year, which is where many diet plans fall short. 5

Balances Blood Sugar

Low-glycemic foods in the Mediterranean diet contain fiber and healthy protein to help slow digestion, which helps regulate your blood sugar levels. Many studies show that the Mediterranean diet may help lower your risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes by improving your blood sugar levels.  

One meta-analysis even found that following a Mediterranean pattern reduced the risk of diabetes by almost 25%.

Elderly-woman-laughing-while-eating-healthy-lunch-with-family

Supports Brain Health

Higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet is linked to a lower risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. These benefits are once again likely related to the antioxidants and healthy fats that cool down inflammation and fight back against oxidative stress that could damage vulnerable brain cells. 

High blood sugar is also linked to an increased risk of dementia, so improving blood sugar with the Mediterranean diet could be another way it supports cognitive function.

May Have Anti-Cancer Properties

Cause and effect is hard to determine when it comes to cancer, but research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of certain cancers. Studies show that people from countries who follow this pattern have lower rates of certain types of cancer.   

Once again, you can thank polyphenols, antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats for the benefits, as these compounds are connected to lower cancer risk.10

Promotes Gut Health

Fiber from the grains, legumes, and veggies in the Mediterranean diet acts as fuel for your gut bacteria. Aside from the critical roles your gut microbes (AKA your gut microbiome) play in digestion and immunity, they are also essential for metabolic health—blood sugar balance, weight management, and more.  

Research suggests that people who follow a Mediterranean diet pattern have healthier gut microbiomes than those following a traditional Western pattern.

The Mediterranean Diet Food List: What to Eat & What to Limit

An easy way to visualize the Mediterranean diet is to consider the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, created by Oldways (a non-profit dedicated to educating and inspiring people to embrace traditional ways of eating), the Harvard School of Public Health, and the World Health Organization. 

In the Mediterranean diet pyramid, you'll see foods that should be eaten in the highest amounts on the bottom (think fresh produce, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates), animal products like fish, poultry, and yogurt on the next two levels, and foods to be limited at the top (namely red meat and sweets). 

Water is encouraged, as is wine (in moderation). The pyramid also emphasizes social connections and movement.

Here's a breakdown of the Mediterranean diet food list in more detail:

Foods to Prioritize and Enjoy at Every Meal (Base of Pyramid)

  • Vegetables: spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, kale, carrots, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, mushrooms, celery, fennel, cabbage, leeks, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, squash, onions, garlic, cucumber
  • Fruits: lemons, oranges, grapefruit, berries, figs, grapes, melons, peaches, plums, apples, pears, pomegranate, apricots, olives, avocados, cherries, tomatoes
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, peas, beans
  • Whole grains: brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, oats, polenta, bulgur, farro, millet, whole wheat 
  • Spices and herbs: balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, honey, salt, pepper, cayenne, turmeric, ginger, oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, cumin, dill, parsley, paprika, bay leaves, basil, sage, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cocoa
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
  • Healthy fats: olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds

Foods to Eat at Least Twice a Week (Second Level of Pyramid)

  • Fish: salmon, sardines, anchovies, tuna, trout, mackerel, halibut, sole
  • Seafood: shrimp, oysters, mussels, clams, crab, scallops

Foods to Consume in Moderation (Third Level)

  • Dairy products: parmesan cheese, Romano cheese, cottage cheese, regular or Greek yogurt, kefir, feta cheese, ricotta cheese, mozzarella
  • Eggs
  • Poultry: chicken, turkey
Egg-carton-on-top-of-cooking-table-with-10-eggs

Foods to Minimize (Top of Pyramid)

  • Red meat
  • Sweets
  • Highly processed foods

Beverages on the Mediterranean Diet

Skip the sugary soda and juice, and choose these options instead:

  • Water. Aim for 8-10 glasses a day. Sparkling unsweetened is okay!
  • Coffee. Coffee isn't a part of the Mediterranean pyramid, but enjoying moderate (unsweetened) amounts of coffee is okay.
  • Tea. Enjoy your unsweetened herbal tea, just keep track of caffeinated tea like green and black.
  • Wine. As mentioned, wine (especially red wine) is part of the Mediterranean pattern. This doesn't mean you have to drink wine if you don't want to, but it can be a bonus for those who do.

5 Tips to Make The Mediterranean Diet a Lifestyle

  1. Focus on fresh, whole foods. Try to fill your plate with vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, beans, and whole grains.
  1. Don't be afraid of eating fat. Focus on olive oil as the primary source of fat when cooking or preparing meals.
  1. Enjoy food with friends and family. Make meals enjoyable by sharing them with loved ones.
  1. Keep it simple. Try to opt for simple, easy-to-make recipes and ingredients that require minimal preparation.
  1. Make time for physical activity. Aim to integrate some form of physical activity into your daily routine, like taking a walk or doing yoga at home.

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos Expert Advice

Even when a diet with piles of research behind it looks like a no-brainer, there are still questions and nuances to consider. For one, some people with blood sugar dysregulation may find that they may need to tweak the number of carbs and protein they eat to see the best results. These individual differences can be explored by using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM).

A CGM tracks your blood sugar continuously, which can provide you with insights into how your body responds to certain meals or snacks. This device can also offer a feedback loop that helps you identify which foods are best for your body. The Signos app takes the information from your CGM and gives you personalized nutrition advice tailored to your individual needs.

Curious if Signos is a good fit for you? Take this quick three-minute quiz to find out.

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References

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About the author

Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.

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