Named one of the healthiest diets in the world for six years in a row, the Mediterranean diet is abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats. It features fish and poultry—lean protein sources—over red meat. Red wine is consumed regularly but in moderate amounts.
Research suggests that the benefits of this eating pattern are many: improved outcomes for intentional weight loss, better management of blood glucose (sugar) levels and reduced risk of cognitive decline, to name a few. The Mediterranean diet has also been associated with reduced levels of inflammation, a risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. And according to a 2020 review in Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Healthfollowing this eating pattern may also improve the outcomes of depression and anxiety.
As a quick reminder, you don’t only have to eat foods from the Mediterranean region to reap these benefits—the dietary principles can be applied to any cuisine. In fact, you don’t even need to overhaul your entire way of shopping and eating. Wiping the slate completely clean may not be necessary, nor is it sustainable.
Here, we outline the steps you can take to incorporate more of the principles of the Mediterranean diet into your current eating pattern. Choose one of these strategies below, and make it a habit. When you’re ready, move on to the next strategy. No matter where you choose to start, these seven tips for starting a Mediterranean diet can help you reap the health benefits.
1. Cook with Olive Oil
If extra-virgin olive oil isn’t your first cooking oil of choice, consider adding it to your rotation. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which may improve HDL cholesterol, the “good” type of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol ferries “bad” LDL particles out of arteries, as of a 2019 study in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. Use olive oil in homemade salad dressings and vinaigrettes. Drizzle it on finished dishes like fish or chicken to boost flavor. Every now and then, swap butter for olive oil in mashed potatoes, pasta and more.
2. Eat More Fish
Fish is a welcome part of the Mediterranean diet. In particular, the diet emphasizes fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel. These fish are rich in heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Even fish that are leaner and have less fat (such as cod or tilapia) are still worth eating, as they provide a good source of protein. And tinned fish is equally nutritious, plus it’s a budget-friendly and sometimes more accessible option. If you currently don’t get a lot of fish in your diet, an easy point of entry is to designate one day each week as fish night. Cooking fish in parchment paper or foil packets is one no-fuss, no-mess way to put dinner on the table. You can also try incorporating fish into some of your favorite foods, like tacos, stir-fries, soups and salads.
3. Eat Veggies All Day Long
If you look at your diet and worry that there’s barely a green to be seen, this is the perfect opportunity to fit in more vegetables. A good way to do this is to eat one serving at snack time—like crunching on bell pepper strips or throwing a handful of dark leafy greens into a smoothie—and one serving at dinner, such as Steamed Butternut Squash or Honey-Chile Glazed Baked Brussels Sprouts. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend you aim for at least 2.5 cups of veggies per day.
4. Help Yourself to Whole Grains
Experiment with whole grains that are still in their “whole” form and haven’t been refined. Quinoa cooks up in just 15 minutes, making it a great side dish for weeknight meals. Barley is full of fiber and it’s filling: pair it with mushrooms for a steamy, satisfying soup. A hot bowl of oatmeal is perfect for breakfast on a cold winter morning. Even popcorn is a whole grain—just keep it healthy by eating air-popped corn and limiting the butter (try a drizzle of olive oil instead). Supplement your intake with other whole grains and whole-grain products, such as millet, fonio, whole-wheat bread, corn tortillas and pasta.
Look for the terms “whole” or “whole grain” on food packaging and in the ingredient list—it should be listed first. If you still find it too hard to make the switch from your old refined favorites, phase in a whole grain by using whole-grain blends of pasta and rice or mixing a whole-grain half-and-half with a refined one (like half whole-wheat pasta and half white).
5. Snack on Nuts
Nuts are another Mediterranean diet staple, and they provide an array of benefits. Grabbing a handful, whether that’s almonds, cashews, peanuts or pecans, can make for a satisfying, on-the-go snack. One 2023 study in Nutrients found that people who snacked on mixed nuts lowered their blood pressure and heart rate, reduced their weight and felt more satisfied compared to those who snacked on pretzels. Choose unsalted and unsweetened nuts more often than salted, glazed or chocolate-coated ones.
6. Enjoy Fruit for Dessert
Generally a good source of fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, fruits are a nutritious way to satisfy your sweet tooth. If a touch of sweetness helps you eat more fruit, try drizzling slices of pear with honey or sprinkling a little brown sugar on grapefruit. Keep fresh fruit visible at home and keep a piece or two at work to have a nutritious snack when your stomach starts growing. Lots of grocery stores stock fruits you might not be familiar with—pick a new one to try each week and expand your fruit horizons.
7. Savor Every Bite
The Mediterranean diet is as much a lifestyle as it is a diet. Instead of gobbling your meal in front of the TV, slow down and sit down at the table with your family and friends to savor what you’re eating. Not only will you enjoy your company and your food, but eating slowly also allows you to tune in to your body’s hunger and fullness signals. You’re more apt to eat just until you’re satisfied than until you’re busting-at-the-seams full.
The Bottom Line
You don’t need to overhaul the way you eat to follow the Mediterranean diet, but rather you can make small tweaks, one step at a time. Whether it’s cooking more often with olive oil, adding more whole grains into meals or savoring every bite, there are many ways to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your life while still eating dishes from your favorite cuisines.