Looking to eat a healthier diet and lose weight? The Mediterranean diet might be right for you.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
This is a style of eating that originated in the region around the Mediterranean Sea i.e. in France, Italy, Greece and Spain. It has become popular in other parts of the world because people who live here appear to have fewer heart problems.
Eating a Mediterranean diet is not about cooking specific dishes from the Mediterranean region, but rather focusing on the food groups and cooking habits that are traditional there.
If you adopt this diet, you’ll probably find that you lose weight and lower your blood pressure. There’s also evidence to suggest that this style of eating helps prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and Alzheimer’s.
What foods are in a Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean isn’t one single thing – it varies from region to region in terms of specific ingredients and dishes. However, there are some common traits:
- More fruits and vegetables
- More wholegrain breads and cereals
- More seafood, including oily fish
- More nuts and seeds
- More peas, beans and lentils
- Less dairy
- Less red meat
- Less alcohol
- Fewer foods high in saturated fat
Fruits and vegetables
As recommended by the NHS, you should aim to eat at least five different portions of varied fruits and vegetables each day (with a portion size of 80g). Fresh fruit and veg is key, but you can also benefit from tinned, dried and frozen kinds.
Carbs are an important part of the Mediterranean diet. Wherever possible, opt for wholegrain cereals – that means wholemeal bread, brown rice and brown pasta. These foods are important for energy, and also provide protein, fibre and vitamins and minerals.
Peas, beans and lentils
Legumes (i.e. vegetables that grow in pods) are a fantastic source of healthy protein, as well as carbohydrate, fibre and essential vitamins. Peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas are often found in Mediterranean dishes – they’re often added to soups and stews, or prepared as dips or pastes like hummus.
Fish and lean meat
You can have meat as part of this diet, but try to opt for lean poultry like chicken and turkey breast with skin and fat removed.
Nuts and seeds
Almonds, cashews, chestnuts and walnuts are all good sources of protein and vitamins, as are seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sunflower, sesame). You can add nuts and seeds to stir fries and salads, have nut butter on toast or in smoothies, and cook with seed oils.
It’s best to avoid salted or honey-roasted nuts, and to avoid eating nuts and seed in very high quantities as they are calorific.
Olive oil is a staple of Mediterranean cooking and a type of mono-unsaturated fat, which is healthier than saturated fat. You can use it for lots of things, including roasting vegetables and making salad dressing.
Other good sources of mono-unsaturated fats are olives, nuts, seeds and avocadoes.
How to start the Mediterranean diet
If you want to follow the Mediterranean diet, it can be helpful to plan out some of the meals you’ll eat and stock up on ingredients in advance. If you’re looking for inspiration to get started, we’ve put together some recipes suggested by Diabetes UK and the NHS.
Mediterranean diet breakfast ideas
- Bircher muesli
- Porridge with fruit
- Wholemeal toast with nut butter and a banana
- Poached eggs with wholemeal toast
Mediterranean diet lunch ideas
- Minestrone soup
- Tuna and bean jackets
- Beans on toast with added veg
- Falafels with wholemeal pittas
Mediterranean diet dinner ideas
- Tasty veggie chilli
- Homemade fish & chips
- Salmon salad
Mediterranean diet snack ideas
- Hummus with wholemeal pitta bread and vegetable sticks
- Carrot and courgette muffins
- Plain almonds
- Sliced apple with peanut butter
What foods are not allowed on the Mediterranean diet?
The main benefit of the Mediterranean diet is that you don’t have to cut anything out completely. However, there are certain foods you should eat in smaller quantities and less often, including the following.
Red meat like beef, pork and lamb. These meats are eaten in much smaller quantities in the Mediterranean region than in the UK. You can still have red meat but aim to eat it in small amounts – for instance, once a week in a roast dinner or added in small quantities to a stew.
Dairy products like milk, yoghurt, cheese and cream. Again, dairy products are less common in the Mediterranean region than they are in the UK. It’s important to get a little bit of dairy each day as it contains calcium and other important nutrients, but try to have low-fat varieties.
Sugary treats like desserts, cakes, biscuits and chocolate bars shouldn’t be a daily feature of your diet, but they’re OK once in a while when eaten in small quantities. If you often crave sweet things, snack on fruit instead.
Alcohol in the Mediterranean diet
Alcohol is certainly a feature of the Mediterranean diet – specifically antioxidant-rich red wine – but it shouldn’t be consumed in excess. Try to have some alcohol-free days throughout the week, and aim to drink no more than two small glasses of wine (or the equivalent) on days when you do drink.
Is the Mediterranean diet healthy?
The Mediterranean diet really closely resembles the NHS Eatwell Guide, which means it’s considered a safe and healthy way of eating. In other words, we could probably all benefit from following a Mediterranean diet!
For vegans or people with food sensitivities or allergies, adaptations to the diet plan will have to be made to ensure you can eat safely while getting all the nutrients your body needs. If you think you’ll need help with this, speak to your GP or find a dietitian.
Mediterranean diet and weight loss
Switching to the Mediterranean diet can have plenty of health benefits, especially if your current diet is high in calories and features a lot of red meat, salt, saturated fat and sugar. You may find that making the switch naturally leads to weight loss, as you’ll be eating leaner meat, less saturated fat and sugar, and more fruits and vegetables.
However, the general rule for weight loss is that you need to consume fewer calories than you’re burning. Switching to the Mediterranean diet should help and will improve your general health, but you may need to be strict about your calorie intake to see results.
For help with weight loss, check out the free 12-week plan from the NHS. You can also get help from LloydsPharmacy – we run a Medicated Weight Loss Service for people with a BMI over 30 or people with a BMI over 27 with a weight-related condition.