In Greece, we just call it “food,” but the Mediterranean Diet has become a health phenomenon and for good reason. This way of eating combines whole, plant-based foods, healthy fats, and lean proteins into a flavorful feast. Plus, the Mediterranean Diet has been linked to numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. With its emphasis on delicious, seasonal ingredients, moderation, and easy-to-make recipes, it's less of a diet and more of a lifestyle, making it the one diet you’ll want to follow. Let’s take a look!
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating that is based on the traditional foods and cooking styles of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea - including Greece. This diet emphasizes whole, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as well as healthy fats like olive oil and fatty fish. It includes moderate amounts of lean proteins like poultry and fish, while limiting red meat and processed foods. Not just food, this diet also emphasizes regular movement. It’s common in Greece that people walk, swim, work in their gardens, and get outdoors each day, factors which contribute to the healthful impact of the Mediterranean Diet.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
The health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are numerous and well researched. The diet has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer. It has also been shown to improve brain function, reduce inflammation, and promote a healthy weight. Recent research suggests, too, that the Mediterranean Diet can be especially helpful to women before, during, and after pregnancy. The emphasis on whole foods and healthy fats is thought to be the key to its health benefits. These also help account for its sustainability, as it is not only good for people, but also good for the planet.
Foods to eat on the Mediterranean Diet
Now the good part! The Mediterranean Diet is simply delicious. It’s at the heart of Greek food, what we eat each day, based on what is in season. The foundation is plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.Think olives, peppers, luscious summer watermelon, crisp cucumbers, or sea fennel - Greece’s amazing secret superfood.
The Mediterranean Diet incorporates healthy fats, and here, Greek olive oil takes center stage. A healthy powerhouse on its own, extra virgin olive oil is an integral part of Greek cooking. Some of our favorite easy-to-incorporate olive oil hacks include using it on bread instead of butter, sauteeing and frying foods in it, and drizzling it over yogurt or fresh tomatoes. Olive oil adds that extra flavor boost that’s irresistible. We even use olive oil to make healthy cakes for breakfast and coffee breaks.
Protein in the Mediterranean Diet might come from lean meats, like chicken or fish, or it’s just as likely to be plant-based, since there are so many delicious legumes and bean dishes in Greek cuisine. In fact, in traditional homes, families often choose to eat vegetarian or vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays as part of their religious practices. And just before Orthodox Easter each year, the 40-day Lenten season is a time of animal-free dining, sure to make any vegetarian or vegan happy.
Herbs and spices play an important role in the Mediterranean Diet, too. Often grown right outside the door, Greek cooks lavish their dishes with thyme, oregano, basil, or lemon zest to enhance their meals and their health.
You might think that sweets would be off limits on the Mediterranean Diet, but that's not the case. Honey, for example, is cultivated across the region. Go into the hills in Greece and you’re likely to see beehives standing in the meadows, where the bees can feast on Greek wildflowers, pine and oak trees. Honey is the optimal natural sweetener, for it never expires and even if it crystallizes, it still retains its nutritional properties. The ancients used honey for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and today it is appreciated for having a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, making it an ideal sugar substitute.
Another natural sweetener with a lower glycemic index: petimezi grape must, an all-natural thick syrup with a rich flavor that enhances sweet and savory dishes alike. This Greek superfood has been used since ancient times as a home remedy for various health & beauty issues. With resvesterol, iron, calcium and magnesium, petimezi is another alternative to sugar that packs a nutritional punch.
For a proper sweet indulgence, followers of the Mediterranean Diet can incorporate Greek Spoon Sweets, pieces of whole fruit or peel that float in a simple syrup of sugar, lemon juice, and water. Using ingredients that might otherwise be discarded - such as citrus peels or rose petals - spoon sweets transform them into delicious magic. A small spoonful adds a touch of pure flavor to Greek yogurts or ice cream. Or they can be offered to a guest the old-fashioned way, just a spoonful of all-natural indulgence to accompany Greek coffee or herbal tea.
Finally, no discussion of the Mediterranean Diet would be complete if we didn’t mention tea! Whether it’s Greek mountain tea, well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, or fetching aromatic herbal blends, loose-leaf tea not only delivers soothing support to the immune and digestive systems, but also offers a refreshing pause in the midst of a busy day. The perfect stress buster!
Easy Mediterranean Diet recipes
We offer a whole range of easy Greek food recipes on the site, including chef-inspired takes on traditional favorites, one-pot mains for your busy weeknights, vegan options - even cocktails! But to get you started, here are three of our favorites. Enjoy them on their own, or combine them to make a delicious, healthy, Mediterranean Diet-friendly meal. Rich in flavor and packed with nutrients, these are sure to please your family and impress your friends. As we say in Greek, kali orexi!
Tips for incorporating the Mediterranean Diet into your lifestyle
When you hear the word ‘diet,’ you might think you’ll be counting calories or living in denial. That is not how the Mediterranean Diet works, thank goodness. It’s really more of a lifestyle. A shift in mindset will help get you started living like a Greek!
Plan for it! Buy whatever is fresh and seasonal, then supplement it with high quality staples so that your pantry is always stocked with Mediterranean Diet-friendly ingredients.
Sneak it in! Give your favorite dishes a Mediterranean Diet upgrade by incorporating olives, roasted peppers, herbs - and of course, olive oil! Enhance pasta or sandwiches with delicious, healthy dips and spreads. It doesn’t have to be hard.
Share it! Greek culture is all about sharing a great meal so invite your family and friends to share a Mediterranean feast, even if it’s just platters of meze appetizers. The laughter and memories you create together are the magic ingredient that make the Mediterranean Diet so special.
Author: Jean Fleming, a writer based in the Peloponnese region of Greece
Reviewed by:Ale Zozos, MS, RDN, LD, founder of the Mediterranean Nutrition School
Enjoy the delicious taste of PDO Kimi figs from the island of Evia and bring the flavors of a Greek summer to your table. Hand-crafted by Kumilio using traditional techniques with no additives, preservatives, artificial coloring or flavors.