If you are on the hunt for a diet that supports heart health, brain function, fertility, and so much more, then look no further than the Mediterranean Diet. As a dietary pattern that emulates how people who live along the Mediterranean Sea eat, following this diet means you will eat lots of plants and not a ton of fried or sugary options. Also, those who follow the Mediterranean Diet enjoy their meals with others instead of shoveling their food down their throat in front of the TV (as some of us are guilty of doing quite often). They also include physical activity in their day. If you want to give this eating pattern a try, you’ll need to know some of the best Mediterranean foods to incorporate.
There are a plethora of foods to choose from if you are committed to following this very popular and extremely impactful diet, including literally any fruit, vegetable, bean, or seed that you fancy. And among the many Mediterranean Diet-friendly foods out there, here are 12 of the best foods to eat from the Mediterranean Diet. Read on, and for more healthy eating tips, check out 10 Best Foods to Boost Your Immunity.
Pistachios are a plant-based source of protein, healthy fats, and fiber—three nutrients that help us feel satisfied. They are also an impressive source of antioxidants, or compounds that help combat oxidative stress. The beneficial health effects of the Mediterranean diet have been frequently attributed to antioxidants, so finding foods that provide these compounds is key to this diet.
A study conducted by Cornell University and published in the journal Nutrients found that pistachios have a high antioxidant capacity. In fact, the antioxidant capacity of pistachios rivals that of popular antioxidant-containing foods, including blueberries, pomegranates, cherries, and red wine.
Pistachios are one of the very few foods high in antioxidants that are also a complete protein—meaning they have all nine essential amino acids normally found in animal-based proteins. Perfect for people who want a more plant-based diet.
Walnuts can enhance the flavor and texture of just about any recipe while leaving you full and satisfied. They are a powerhouse of important nutrients for optimum health, including protein (4 grams), fiber (2 grams), a good source of magnesium (45 milligrams). Plus, they are an excellent source of the essential omega-3 ALA (2.5 grams).
In fact, walnuts are the only nut to offer an excellent source of the plant-based omega-3 ALA, which research has shown benefits heart health and brain health.
Research from the landmark Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) study further demonstrates the potential heart health benefits of walnuts. The study was conducted among more than 7,000 Spanish adults at high risk for cardiovascular disease and found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed tree nuts (50% walnuts, 25% almonds, 25% hazelnuts) was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events, including cardiovascular death, myocardial infarction (heart attack) and stroke when compared to a low-fat control diet.
Seafood, particularly oily coldwater fish (like salmon), is a natural source of unique fatty acids referred to as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The specific fatty acids found in these choices are DHA and EPA. Marine omega-3 fatty acids are the most important bioactive molecules in fish and seafood consumed in the Mediterranean Diet. Data shows consumption of these fats may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and help support elevated HDL “good” cholesterol.
When it comes to adding seafood to your Mediterranean diet, try opting for choices that are certified responsibly raised by the non-profit Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to ensure that what is on your plate is responsibly raised, minimizing negative impacts on the environment.
Although the Mediterranean diet plan recommends only two servings of milk and dairy, some data suggests some benefits to eating even more on this diet, Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, award-winning nutrition expert and partner with National Dairy Council, explains.
“A 2018 published randomized control trial that looked at various cardiovascular risk factors when consuming 3-4 dairy servings per day in the Mediterranean Diet compared to a low-fat diet found added benefits from more dairy foods. Researchers concluded that the benefits of including 3-4 servings of milk and dairy compared to only two servings included reduced inflammation and a reduction in other atherosclerosis risk factors,” she added.
Leafy greens are a dynamite addition to your Mediterranean Diet plate. And since watercress has been deemed the most nutrient-dense food on the planet by the CDC, it is a noteworthy vegetable to make this list.
Known as a slightly peppery aquatic vegetable, watercress boasts unique compounds like Phenylethyl Isothiocyanate (aka PEITC). Data suggests PEITC may have anti-cancer properties, making it an obvious choice for people who want to mitigate their risk.
Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family and include options like chickpeas, dry peas, and lentils.
In the context of a Mediterranean diet, pulses are integral. Their high-protein and fiber contents align perfectly with the diet’s focus on plant-based foods and heart health. Traditional Mediterranean recipes often incorporate lentils, chickpeas, and various types of beans, which not only add depth and richness to the meals but also help keep you satiated for longer periods. The versatility of pulses allows them to be used in a plethora of dishes, from hearty soups and salads to wholesome main courses, making them a staple in the Mediterranean culinary palette.
Beef gets a bad rap, and technically when following the Mediterranean Diet, beef should be consumed in limited amounts. But there is evidence that suggests more beef, specifically lean cuts of beef, can be a part of the Mediterranean diet if it is consumed in the right way.
In a randomized controlled study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that a Mediterranean diet combined with small portions of lean beef helped lower risk factors for developing heart disease, such as LDL cholesterol.
So, if you are following the Mediterranean diet and you love beef, eating small portions along with vegetables, whole grains, and other Med diet stapes appears to be totally fine.
Olive oil holds a prestigious spot in the Mediterranean diet due to its numerous health benefits and rich, distinctive flavor. It is highly prized not only as a cooking medium but also for its role in enhancing the taste and texture of foods. Olive oil is a primary source of healthy monounsaturated fats, which are beneficial for heart health. It is also rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, contributing to overall health and longevity.
In the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is used generously in dressings for salads, drizzled over cooked foods, used for sautéing vegetables, and even used for baking. Its prevalence in this cuisine underscores the Mediterranean diet’s emphasis on incorporating healthy fats, contributing to its reputation as one of the world’s healthiest dietary patterns.
In one important study, subjects who have high cardiovascular disease risk were randomized to different interventions: Mediterranean Diets supplemented with nuts or extra-virgin olive oil, or a control low-fat diet. Those who ate the most olive oil had a 35% cardiovascular disease risk reduction vs. those who followed the low-fat diet.
Avocados, while not traditionally part of the Mediterranean diet, fit well within its healthful and flavorful framework. This nutrient-dense fruit is packed with monounsaturated fatty acids, similar to olive oil, which support heart health and help reduce bad cholesterol levels. Furthermore, avocados are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them an excellent addition to a variety of dishes. While they may not be native to the Mediterranean region, their creamy texture and mild flavor allow them to blend seamlessly with traditional Mediterranean ingredients.
Higher avocado intake has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease in two large prospective cohorts of U.S. men and women.
Whole grains are an important part of the Mediterranean diet, and buckwheat is a great option to include in a Med diet to check the whole grain box.
Buckwheat, despite its misleading name, is not related to wheat and is in fact a gluten-free pseudo-grain (but it is still considered to be a whole grain). Buckwheat groats, the hulled seeds of the plant, are cooked similarly to rice and have a robust, nutty flavor. They are often served as an alternative to rice or made into porridge. Nutritionally, it is a powerhouse, rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and plant-based proteins. It also contains several vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, magnesium, and manganese.
Buckwheat is also found as an ingredient in certain foods, like Arrowhead Mills Maple Buckwheat Flakes.
There are no “bad” foods to choose from when following the Mediterranean Diet (all are welcomed and encouraged). But if we had to pick some of our favorite choices, they would fall under the berry category.
Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are a natural source of antioxidants, dietary fiber, and vitamin C. Known for their potent anti-inflammatory properties, these small fruits contribute to heart health, aid in digestion, and even support brain health. Their sweet, tart flavor pairs well with many Mediterranean dishes, offering a refreshing balance to savory elements.
Herbs and spices are a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, imparting rich flavors and aromas to dishes without the addition of excessive salt or sodium. Popular herbs in this region include basil, parsley, rosemary, and thyme, offering a variety of health benefits such as improved digestion and anti-inflammatory properties.
Garlic is also a flavorful addition to a Mediterranean Diet, and it provides some impressive health benefits to boot with some data suggesting it has anti-cancer benefits.