A Deep Dive Into the Mediterranean Diet
See what the popular eating plan really looks like (teaser: it's mostly plant-based)—and why you may want to adopt it today.
A salad drizzled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon followed by a fillet of freshly caught fish, perfectly grilled, with a side of herb-seasoned vegetables bursting with flavour. All enjoyed with a glass of red wine. This is a typical dinner spread if you follow the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating that's based on traditional foods and cooking styles in Mediterranean countries like Greece and Italy. Besides tasting good, it's often considered one of the healthiest diets in the world—and one of the easiest to follow. Here's why.
A Peek at a Mediterranean Plate
Though some indulgences are on the table (oil, wine), the diet's defining characteristic is that it's full of fresh fruits and vegetables, says Carol A. Shively, PhD, a professor of pathology at the Wake Forest School of Medicine who studies the behavioural and physiological effects of the Mediterranean diet. This heavy emphasis on fresh produce makes the diet rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (compounds that can naturally fight cellular damage), many of which can be hard to find in other foods.
The rest of the menu is made up of legumes and nuts, whole grains, seafood, lean poultry, eggs, extra-virgin olive oil and, yes, some wine (typically red). The diet is fairly light on dairy, while red meat is very limited, though not off-limits. Simple preparations using fresh herbs, sea salt and pepper, and lemon juice are key too: they highlight food's natural flavours rather than burying them in calorie-laden, processed sauces and toppings.
The Belly-to-Body Benefits
Building most of your meals around plants and healthy fats (such as avocados, olives and salmon) while minimising red meat and processed foods means you limit saturated and trans fats, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. You also minimise added sugars, which, according to research, are associated with a number of issues from heart disease to poor mental health.
The Mediterranean diet also contains foods (such as tuna, walnuts and flaxseed) that fight inflammation by increasing a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, says Shively. And they improve cholesterol: just eight weeks of getting about 20% of your daily calories from monounsaturated fatty acids, the kind favoured by the Mediterranean diet, can result in a significant reduction in LDL, or "bad", cholesterol, according to a study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. Other research has also linked healthy fatty acids and additional nutrients (like carotenoids, found in tomatoes and carrots) to better brain health and a lower incidence of chronic illness.
"Building most of your meals around plants and healthy fats (such as avocados, olives and salmon) while minimising red meat and processed foods means you limit saturated and trans fats".
RD, Head Performance Nutrition Coach at Precision Nutrition
The diet could help you in the gym too. "You can see a better body composition on the Mediterranean diet, with a higher muscle-to-fat ratio", says Shively. That could help you lift heavier, run faster and develop more power. Case in point: in a study in Italy, people who more closely followed the eating plan were less likely to gain weight and had a reduced increase in their waist circumference across five years. Other research finds that people who stick to the diet have higher levels of muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as less age-related muscle loss, perhaps due to lower levels of inflammation.
It's a Lifestyle
To be clear, the Mediterranean diet isn't a quick fix. The longer you stick with it, the more it pays off. In fact, it may even help you live longer. A review of studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that the diet's close followers lowered their risk of death from all causes compared to those on a control diet. The likely explanation? All the aforementioned health benefits that come with eating a heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory diet. In fact, two of the world's five Blue Zones—areas with the highest percentage of people who live to age 100—are in the Mediterranean region, where they tend to eat the healthiest version of the diet (it's even more plant-based).
Possibly the diet's most attractive feature, though, is that it isn't very restrictive. Unlike many trendy eating plans today, there's way more that you can eat than you "can't" eat, and the diet doesn't include strict portion recommendations or guidelines. And with so many varieties of fruits, veggies, fish, legumes and grains out there, says Maciel, you have a multitude of options. It's not only a lifestyle that can help you for the long haul, it's also one you can actually stick with for life.
To do that, experiment with new plant-based recipes (there are a tonne online, or you can find them on the Nike Training Club App). And look for ways to add more fruits, veggies and beans to old favourites by, say, topping your yogurt with berries, stacking a sandwich with raw veggies or adding chickpeas to a chicken dish. Choose olive oil instead of butter when you cook, and use it instead of store-bought dressings to add flavour to vegetables and salads. Include seafood in your diet a few times a week. Pour red wine if and when you drink alcohol (just stick to one glass per night—this one isn't a "more is better" situation, sorry!). And in place of refined white rice and pasta, incorporate whole grains like farro or kamut, which pack a lot more texture and taste anyway.
Even if you don't eat the Mediterranean way all day every day, "every little bit helps", says Shively. And to that we say, "salute!"