How to get started on a Mediterranean diet

Embraced by societies in southern Europe and northern Africa, the “Mediterranean diet” provides significant medical benefits and can easily be adopted by most individuals.
how to start mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has its roots in regions around the sea with the same name. Societies around the Mediterranean Sea have been eating foods made with certain key, yet diverse ingredients for millennia, including: olive oil; grapes; wheat and lentils; and fish. The diet took center stage in the 1960s when Ancel Keys and Flaminio Fidanza observed that the Cretan diet was correlated with a lower incidence of coronary heart disease. Since then, a wider body of research has supported these and other positive findings, cementing the diet’s place as a healthier way of eating in modern society. Among many other leading medical organizations, the American Diabetes Organization endorses the diet, correlating it with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D). In this article, we will help you take your first steps toward reaping the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet. We’ll talk about its features, the nutritional and health benefits, and easy ways you can incorporate this healthy eating regimen into your daily life. So, here’s how to start the Mediterranean diet.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The initial definition of the Mediterranean diet related to the eating patterns common in the Greek Islands and Italy in the 1960s. Further research into the 18 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea shows that several different definitions of this diet exist, depending on the geographic region. However, a handful of common features exist:

  • A natural diet: The Mediterranean diet minimizes the consumption of processed foods. All foods eaten in this diet are derived from naturally grown and fresh foods.

  • Moderated protein levels: The protein levels eaten in the Mediterranean diet are typically about 20% lower than in a typical Western diet. Much of the protein in a Mediterranean diet is obtained from fish, while red meats and eggs are consumed less frequently. Dairy-based products (also rich in proteins) are also consumed more moderately in this diet, which appears associated with its own set of medical benefits.

  • Limited processed sweets: The predominant type of sweets consumed in the Mediterranean diet are fruits, rather than refined or processed sweets such as pastries, reducing the risk of fluctuating blood glucose levels.  

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Before you learn how to start the Mediterranean diet, let’s dig into the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. This healthy diet is an excellent alternative to a vegan or vegetarian diet if you don’t wish to entirely eliminate meat and fish from your diet. But what makes the Mediterranean diet a popular choice for a healthy lifestyle? An important consideration lies in the many protective effects against diseases that the diet provides.

  • Gastrointestinal diseases (GI): People adopting the Mediterranean diet also see medical benefits in their gut function. People who supplemented a Western Diet with plant foodstuffs typical of the Mediterranean diet saw an increased abundance of short-chain fatty acid (SCFA)-producing bacteria. SCFAs, such as butyrate, provide a wide range of benefits to gut integrity, function, and immune protection. These protective effects derive in part from the high fiber consumption characteristic of the Mediterranean diet.

How to start the Mediterranean diet

The many benefits of starting a Mediterranean diet make it an appealing choice for anyone eager to live a healthy lifestyle. However, with so many cultures taking a unique approach to the diet, it can be intimidating to decide which foods work best for you when beginning such a meal plan. To make it easier for you, we’ll begin with a list of foods that comprise a key part of this diet, helping you learn how to start a Mediterranean diet:

  • Nuts, seeds, and legumes: These three excellent plant-based sources of protein are integral to a Mediterranean diet. Nuts and seeds are easy to integrate gently into your diet and they reduce the risk of multiple diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. 

The Mediterranean diet also moderates the consumption of certain foods, so consider cutting back on the following food products:

  • Refined grains: All wheat flours are produced from wheat kernels, which are comprised of the bran, endosperm, and wheat germ. Many of the nutrients that wheat provides come from the bran and germ layers. Refined grains, by contrast, have their bran and germ layers removed when the flours are ground and milled. Accordingly, consider replacing the refined grains you eat with whole-wheat bread, such as homemade olive bread.

Key takeaways

So, how do you start the Mediterranean diet? The Mediterranean diet, in its many varied but related forms, is associated with longer, healthier lives because it features whole foods that are low in unhealthy fats and added/processed sugars and higher in fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants. As a result, this eating pattern is correlated with reduced risks of heart disease, obesity, T2D, and certain cancers. Best of all, there are limitless and delicious ways in which you can get started on this healthy diet.

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