The Mediterranean diet isn’t a regimented plan, like South Beach, the Blood Type Diet or any others; it’s more a way of eating. After World War II, a research team began to study the eating patterns of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece and southern Italy, and concluded that they had distinct benefits, particularly for cardiovascular health. When you embark on a Mediterranean-style diet, you give preference in your meals to plant foods and eat more fish than red meat. You also take the way you eat into account. Talk to your doctor about whether a Mediterranean-style diet would be right for you.
The Mediterranean diet pyramid looks different from other food pyramids. Social eating and physical activity sit at the base, supplying the foundational piece of the regimen. Research has shown that, traditionally, people in Mediterranean countries spend more time preparing, eating and savoring their food, and took their meals in the company of others. Contrast this with the American habit of eating fast food alone or on the run, in a car or at a desk. The traditional Mediterranean style of living was also much less sedentary than that of other cultures, including the United States, involving significant physical labor and activity.
Plant foods like fruit and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs and spices make up the next largest slice of the Mediterranean pyramid — the nutritional base of the diet. These foods form the core of each meal.
Fish and seafood come next, eaten about twice a week. Poultry, eggs and dairy in the form of cheese and yogurt are eaten in moderate portions on a daily or weekly basis. For example, one review of research on Mediterranean eating suggests about four eggs a week. At the very top of the pyramid — meaning you eat them only sparingly — are red meat and sweets. Preferred beverages include water, as well as red wine, in moderation.
If you’ve decided to try a Mediterranean diet for four weeks, or 30 days, try a basic rotation of seven breakfasts, lunches and dinners and vary them over the duration of the trial. Once you get a sense of how the diet works, you can add in new foods and dishes to vary your options more.
Don’t think that “Mediterranean diet” means gorging on pasta and pizza, though. People in Mediterranean countries traditionally eat small portions of grains – for example, a side dish of 1/2 to 1 cup of pasta, instead of the full platter of pasta Americans are used to. Fill the rest of your plate with vegetables to fill you up without many calories.
Fiber and protein are your best friends on any diet. These two nutrients provide the satiety you need to stay full and content so you don’t overeat. If your goal is to lose or maintain weight, avoiding excess food intake will be important to your success.
Start your day on a Mediterranean diet with breakfast, to fuel you for the tasks ahead and keep you feeling full for hours. Have breakfast with your family, if you’re on the same schedule, and try to avoid watching television as you eat.
On day 1, have a cup of plain low-fat Greek yogurt for breakfast, topped with 1/2 cup of blueberries and an ounce of chopped walnuts. The yogurt gives you calcium and satisfying protein, while the berries are full of antioxidants that protect you against cellular damage, and the nuts supply heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Have yogurt on day 4, too, but try pomegranate seeds and chopped pistachios — or sliced oranges and chopped almonds.
On day 2, cook a cup of oatmeal with an ounce of chopped walnuts and 1/2 cup of sliced apples for a breakfast high in fiber and protein; sprinkle in a teaspoon of cinnamon and maple syrup. Have this breakfast again on day 5, but vary the add-ins — try 1/2 cup of strawberries with thinly sliced almonds. If you like milk with your oatmeal, opt for unsweetened almond or soy.
Eggs are on the menu for days 3 and 6. Have a frittata made with two eggs, red bell pepper, scallion and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese the first day. The next time you have eggs, break an egg into half an avocado, sprinkle with a little Romano cheese and bake. This not only cooks up fast, but offers you the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats of avocado.
Two slices of whole-grain toast with 2 tablespoons of almond butter constitute your day 7 breakfast; enjoy it with half a grapefruit or a sliced pear.
If you ate a hearty breakfast, you won’t be hungry until lunch. It’s best to brown-bag it because you can control the ingredients and portions, but if you eat out, look for grilled fish and salad as a menu option. Don’t eat at your desk while writing a report, but go to the park with a friend or join your co-workers in the lunch room. Bringing leftovers is also a good lunch option.
On day 1, lunch is 3 cups of spinach topped with 3 ounces of salmon or sardines; the greens are loaded with vitamins A and K, plus iron, while the fish supplies protein and omega-3 fats. Include some chopped veggies on your salad, like tomato, broccoli and bell pepper for fiber and vitamin C to help you absorb the iron. Have a salad again on day 5, but use romaine lettuce this time, and substitute cannellini beans for your protein and choose cucumber, carrots and asparagus tips as veggies. Opt for olive oil and red wine or balsamic vinegar for your dressing.
Day 2’s lunch consists of a serving of hummus with sliced veggies of your choice; celery, carrots and bell pepper made good accompaniments. Use a round of whole-wheat pita for dipping, too, and finish the meal with an orange or kiwifruit. The next day, have a bowl of lentil soup with whole-grain crackers, and top the bowl with crunchy pomegranate seeds and a dollop of plain yogurt. Lentils supply protein and fiber in one satisfying package; a cup has 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber. Make a big pot and have this soup again on day 4, or try a different soup like minestrone sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
On days 3, 6 and 7, your lunches are half an avocado filled with tuna salad; a grilled portobello mushroom topped with lettuce and tomato; and a broiled turkey burger served with a side soup or salad or baked sweet potato fries. If you’re a vegetarian, substitute a bean burger for the turkey.
There’s been no poultry or red meat so far in the menu, so plan for two dinners a week incorporating these animal foods instead of fish. Eat with family or friends, whenever possible, and listen to music instead of watching TV. Enjoy a glass of red wine with your meal; a moderate intake gives you polyphenols — natural compounds in grapes — that may protect you from heart disease, cognitive problems and even cancer.
The herbs and spices associated with the Mediterranean diet shine at dinner. Meal options include fish like grilled salmon or pan-seared trout, seasoned with lemon and dill; chicken baked with a little olive oil and rosemary; grilled lamb chops with mint; mussels cooked in a tomato, garlic and wine broth; chili made with ground turkey, kidney beans and cayenne, or vegetarian-style with a mix of beans; and scallops sauteed with mushrooms and leeks. Have a 4-ounce serving of protein, and fill the rest of your plate with cooked veggies, like cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, or green beans.
One-half cup of quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or couscous makes a good side; dress it with a little olive oil and black pepper.
You’ve enjoyed hearty eating during the 30 days of your meal plan, but you may need an occasional snack to get you through a long afternoon of work or school. Choose an ounce of nuts or dried apricots; a cup of low-fat cottage cheese sprinkled with black pepper and a dash of salt; or an ounce of herbed goat cheese with a handful of whole-grain crackers. If you need something sweet after dinner, have a piece of fruit or 1/2 cup of fresh-fruit sorbet.
Stay on this diet for four weeks, and you’ll be hooked on the flavor and freshness of the foods. Make sure you get 30 minutes of movement in most days of the week. If your diet has been heavy on processed and fast foods and you’ve been more sedentary, you’ll likely drop pounds, and other health perks will add up, too. Results of meta-analysis of 12 large studies conducted between 1966 and 2008, covering more than 1.5 million subjects, were published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2009. The authors concluded that the Mediterranean diet is associated with significant health benefits, including lower mortality overall, and reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.