Mediterranean diet: a meal plan for life?

Senior Specialist Dietitian at Bupa Cromwell Hospital
22 February 2018

With spring just around the corner, are you seeking a new diet plan that’s delicious, easy to follow and offers long-term health benefits? If so, the Mediterranean diet could be the one for you. Recently ranked the number one diet for 2018 by a panel of experts, there’s a growing body of research to suggest that it has multiple health benefits.

In this blog I explore what the diet is all about, and why we should seriously consider adopting it as a meal plan for life.

Olive oil and tomatoes

What is the Mediterranean diet?

When you think about the Mediterranean diet, do you picture sunshine, delicious pasta, pizzas and olive oil? I do! But in truth, this is a diet largely based on plant foods and includes plenty of vegetables and fruit, whole grain breads, pulses, beans, nuts, seeds and pasta.

The Mediterranean diet also contains some poultry, eggs, dairy products (such as cheese and yoghurt) and fish containing heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.  It also consists of small amounts of red meat and a moderate intake of red wine with meals.

Healthy fats

Another important aspect of the Mediterranean diet is its use of ‘healthy fats’. The main source of fat in this diet is olive oil. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat which can help to reduced high cholesterol levels. It’s also a good source of vitamin E and anti-inflammatory compounds.

Polyunsaturated and unsaturated fats, found in seeds, nuts and oily fish, are also included, and considered to be healthy fats. Examples of healthy fats include: oils, soft spreads and margarines like sunflower, soya, corn, linseed (flaxseed), safflower and fish oil.

So, if you’re serious about getting on board with this diet plan, you’ll need to ditch foods high in saturated fat, which are considered unhealthy. Saturated fats tend to be found in animal sources and full fat dairy foods. That also means turning your back on butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil, palm oils and processed foods like pastries, cakes, biscuits and sausages.

How does the Mediterranean diet work?

Although this type of diet has been popular around the Mediterranean for a long time, it’s gained more popularity in recent years as an ideal dietary pattern for disease prevention.  However, it wasn’t originally developed as a way to prevent heart disease or promote weight loss. Over centuries, it has evolved based on the availability of foods in the region.

Yet, research into the Mediterranean diet suggests that the whole diet approach, and combination of all the healthy foods and fats (such as olive oil), make it an extremely healthy way to eat. For example, if you’re currently eating a lot of processed foods, don’t expect to see any significant health benefits by simply adding olive oil in your diet. To get the most out of this diet you’ll need to consider embracing your whole approach to food, rather than making a few adjustments to an existing diet.

Foods to embrace

The Mediterranean diet focuses on the social aspect of eating, and on a healthy lifestyle. It encourages you to enjoy meals with others, and to be physically active. It also emphasises the use of herbs, spices and olive oil in cooking.

In essence, you should base your diet on these healthy, unprocessed foods:

  • A rainbow of fresh fruits every day.
  • Raw or cooked vegetables (including kale, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, fennel, cauliflower and artichokes).
  • Nuts and seeds (such as sesame seeds, walnuts, cashews and almonds).
  • Legumes (including beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas).
  • Whole grains (including brown rice, barley, quinoa, whole oats, rye and brown pasta).
  • Tubers (such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips).
  • Fish and seafood (such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, tuna and prawns).
  • Poultry (including chicken, duck and turkey).
  • Dairy foods (such as eggs, cheese and yoghurt).
  • Healthy fats (such as extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil).

Water should be your main drink on a Mediterranean diet, with 1.5 to 2 litres consumed each day. But you can consume moderate amounts of red wine, around one glass each day. Coffee and tea are also allowed on the diet, but you should avoid adding sugar to these drinks. Read our tips on portion size.

Foods to avoid

Try and avoid these foods and ingredients which are considered unhealthy:

  • processed meats (such as sausages, ham and hamburgers)
  • sugar-sweetened drinks and foods (ice cream, table sugar, cake and sweets)
  • refined grains (such as pasta made with refined wheat and white bread)
  • refined oils (such as canola oil and soybean oil)
  • saturated fat (found in margarine and some processed foods).

Getting started: the basic rules

  • Tuck into: vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, legumes, seeds, potatoes, breads, fish and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Eat in moderation: eggs, cheese, poultry and yoghurt.
  • Limit: red meat and sweets to no more than once a week.
  • Avoid eating: processed meat, foods and drinks with added sugars, highly processed foods, refined grains and refined oils.

Should I try the Mediterranean diet?

As well as being a balanced recipe for long-term health, that’s easy to follow, here are some key reasons why we shouldn’t ignore the Mediterranean diet.

  • Healthy weight management. There is evidence that this diet can promote weight management in a healthy way. It does this by reducing your saturated fat intake, as the diet is high in healthy fats, such as olive oil or nuts.
  • Disease prevention. The Mediterranean diet is associated with lower rates of heart disease. Its use of foods containing healthy fats and omega-3 has been shown to promote a healthy heart.
  • Cancer prevention. People who follow the Mediterranean diet may also have a lower risk of developing some cancers, such as prostate and bowel cancer, according to various studies.
  • Diabetes prevention. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet can also help reduce cardiovascular risk in people with Type 2 diabetes. A study following a group of people with diabetes over four years on the Mediterranean diet, revealed that a much smaller percentage of people needed medication, compared to people on a low-fat diet. Research findings have also associated the diet with a low risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • Longer life. If you’re hoping to live a long and healthy life, this could be the ideal eating pattern for you. Studies into people who follow the Mediterranean diet, have shown that they may benefit from a longer life expectancy.

Are there any downsides?

It’s hard to find any downsides to the Mediterranean diet, as the positives overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives. But, if you do decide to follow this meal plan, here are a few things that you will need to consider to help you stay on track.

  • Watch your portion sizes. Try and make sure that you stick to the daily recommended amount of portion sizes.
  • Don’t go wild with the red wine and olive oil. While red wine is recommended on the diet, try and stick to no more than one or two glasses per day. And while olive oil is located at the centre of the pyramid, it is still high in calories and should be used in moderation (one tablespoon per person).
  • Get creative with cooking. If you shy away from cooking you might need to brush up on your cooking skills, as this diet relies on your ability to cook. There are lots of inspiring Mediterranean diet recipes on the internet, providing great tips for delicious meals.  Spices, herbs, garlic and onions are a good way to introduce a variety of flavours to dishes, and help to reduce salt intake.

Mediterranean diet meal taster

Being able to maintain a diet over a long period of time is one of the most important elements of any successful diet. A really positive aspect of this diet is that it offers an appealing variety of flavours and food options based on fresh and whole food ingredients. For example, a single meal could include:

  • lentil, minestrone or bean soup
  • a whole-grain bread or roll
  • steamed or grilled fish
  • freshly cooked vegetables
  • fresh salad with an olive oil dressing
  • fruit with yoghurt (for dessert)

Ready to embrace the perfect recipe for a healthy life? For some inspiration on getting started download a seven-day meal plan and recipes, from the Diabetes UK charity website.

Maya Aboukhater
Senior Specialist Dietitian at Bupa Cromwell Hospital

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