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9 Things to Know Before Starting the Mediterranean Diet

Frame your mindset and make sure to avoid common traps before adopting this heart-healthy lifestyle.

The most significant factor in successfully adhering to a diet is enjoying what you eat on a daily basis. Savory foods such as pan-roasted veggies and macadamia-crusted salmon coupled with indulgences like dark chocolate and pinot noir make sticking to your healthy eating plan a breeze—which is likely why the Mediterranean diet was dubbed the best diet out of 40 popular eating plans.

Among helping people lose weight, other notable benefits of the Mediterranean diet include preventing heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cognitive decline, and certain cancers. It's also been linked to improving your gut microbiome and helping you improve your time in the bedroom: whether you're catching Zzz's or getting busy.

Before revamping your grocery list and tweaking your meal plan, there are a few things to take note of to ensure you reap the loftiest results.

It's Not About Counting Calories

Man counting calories

Rather than tracking macros and calories or eliminating food groups, the Mediterranean diet focuses on eating whole foods over processed and prioritizing plants and healthy fats. A Mediterranean diet-compliant grocery list includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, fish, herbs and spices, and a moderate amount of fermented dairy, chicken, and eggs. This combination of foods possesses high antioxidant, fiber, and omega-3 levels that have been linked to a myriad of health benefits. The diet shuns typical Western foods such as butter, red meat, and baked goods while heavily emphasizing staying physically active and enjoying meals with others.

Don't Think of It as a Fad

Cooking and cutting vegetables at home

For a sustainable diet such as the Mediterranean diet, perseverance comes quite easily—which is a plus when you're looking to stick to it long term. "First, to set fears aside, the Mediterranean Diet is not a 'diet' in the sense that its purpose is not to help you lose weight. Rather, it's a style of eating that emphasizes a well-balanced eating plan," NYC-based Registered Dietitian, Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, says. "Keep in mind that you can't just have a salad each day and a glass of wine and think you're following the Med Diet," Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color, adds. "It's really a lifestyle plan that should be followed daily to provide the benefits. Since it's not a restrictive plan, it's something that most people really can follow and enjoy for years."

You Can Eat Pasta

Whole wheat pasta

"Yes, you can eat pasta on the Med Diet! Just stick to one serving and include healthy fats and vegetables in your bowl," Largeman-Roth tells us. Since whole grains are a staple of the diet, cooking a pot of whole-wheat pasta is a solid way to meet your daily fiber quota (28 to 34 grams), so long as you choose the right noodles. Whole-grain pasta, as well as legume-based noodles made out of black beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are all healthful, low-glycemic options that add a plethora of vitamins and minerals to your dish without leading to blood sugar spikes and related weight gain. Add even more benefits to your bowl by tossing in grilled shrimp or halibut for protein and an olive-oil-based sauce or chopped Kalamatas for a potent dose of slimming oleic acid.

The Foods Work Synergistically

Healthy foods

While the Mediterranean diet has been proven to decrease harmful LDL cholesterol as well as the risk of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other chronic diseases, Jim White, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Instructor, believes the diet's success is due to the unique combinations of vitality-promoting foods. "Each food has synergy to help promote overall wellness. Essential fats such as avocados, nuts, and oils provide omega-3 fats that help reduce triglycerides, improve the health of blood vessels, and decrease heart attack risk. Complex carbs such as potatoes, beans, and whole grains help provide energy for performance and fiber for gut health while lean proteins such as beef, eggs, and fish provide protein to build lean muscle," White says, adding that produce such as blueberries, broccoli, and apples provide antioxidants that help prevent certain cancers.

Focus on Herbs and Spices Over Salt

Fresh herbs

Excessive sodium in the diet has been linked to high blood pressure and subsequent risk for cardiovascular disease. Because the Med diet focuses on promoting heart health, it's essential to cease flavoring your meals with salt and opt for flavorful herbs and spices instead. "This can be as easy as adding parsley to a wrap or basil to a salad," Rizzo suggests. And when it comes to snacking, salty potato chips are an obvious no-go. Rizzo recommends fulfilling cravings for crunchy eats with unsalted nuts. "Replace the unhealthy items in your snack drawer with unsalted nuts. Any type of nuts are a great choice, but just be careful of the portion size. It's generally about a handful of twenty nuts." The unsaturated fats in nuts will help keep you full without filling you out, while the empty carbs in a bag of Lay's will have you reaching in for more.

You Have Room to Be Flexible

Woman eating nuts

"There is no one set Mediterranean Diet," Atlanta, Georgia-based dietitian Marisa Moore, RDN says. Instead of sticking with the same foods daily, "keep the plate exciting by combining the traditional foods and flavors from the many countries touched by the Mediterranean sea from Italy and Greece to Tunisia. In addition to abundant fruits and vegetables, keep meals interesting with harissa, Italian, Spanish, or Greek olive oil, lots of nuts and seeds, and delicious fish and seafood of all kinds."

You Can Choose to Drink Wine

Couple cheers red wine

Indulging in full-bodied red vino is one of the Mediterranean diet's many benefits, but it's definitely not a requirement. "If you decide to drink, do so in moderation with no more than one five-ounce glass per day for women (two glasses for men)," Moore tells us. Red wine is high in resveratrol—which is being studied for its potential role in boosting heart health, protecting from certain cancers, and other health benefits."

If you're not a drinker, you can reap resveratrol's benefits by snacking on grapes. "[Besides resveratrol], grapes also offer other natural plant compounds that may work in synergy to offer other potential health perks. Resveratrol is also found in grape juice as well as mulberries. But the bottom line is that you don't have to start drinking for a heart-healthy boost—you can get it from other foods and lifestyle changes."

Choose the Right Fats

Olive oil
Roberta Sorge/Unsplash

"While healthy fat is a component of the Med Diet, sources suggest choosing oils such as olive and canola over fats like butter," Sydney Greene, MS, RD, tells us. "Olive oil is a fantastic source of monounsaturated fatty acids which have been shown to help lower inflammation whereas other vegetable oils such as canola, may increase inflammation due to the heavy processing required to manufacture it. It is important to note that the majority of canola oil sold is genetically modified and the research is still being done to determine how harmful GMO crops are. If used in moderation (a maximum of one tablespoon at a time), I would recommend someone cook with an organic, grass-fed butter instead of canola oil. If you're sensitive to dairy, choose avocado oil."

Pick Full-Fat Dairy

Pour chia seeds on yogurt

Because non-fat and low-fat dairy options tend to contain added sugars in order to provide the same mouthfeel as full-fat counterparts, it's best to choose full-fat products. Greene recommends limiting dairy to a few times per week and choosing plain, full-fat options that contain gut-friendly probiotics. "A whole-milk Greek yogurt will keep you more full than 0 percent yogurt, so you will be less likely to snack on less healthy options. Not a fan of plain yogurts? Flavor them with cinnamon or vanilla bean powder," Greene says.

April Benshosan, MS
April is a born-and-raised Brooklynite who has a passion for all things health, wellness, and tastebud-related. Read more about April