As a dietitian, I see a lot of fad diets come and go. A lot of them feel more like a punishment than a doable lifestyle (and have flimsy-at-best science to back them up).
But the Mediterranean Diet is the real deal. Instead of being a diet you go on and off, it’s a pattern of eating -- and there’s a lot of evidence to support its positive effects, like lower risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Even better, you don’t have to count calories, endure lists of “foods to avoid,” or seek out pricey ingredients. “It’s surprisingly budget-friendly,” says Serena Ball, a dietitian and co-author of Easy Everyday Mediterranean Diet Cookbook . “Many of the most-used Mediterranean ingredients are pantry staples including canned tuna, canned beans, canned tomatoes, olives, pasta, potatoes, onions, whole grains, plain yogurt, frozen fruits and vegetables.”
Here are five simple ways to start eating more Mediterranean today:
Don't cut out carbs
So many diets slash carbohydrates, but healthy foods like whole grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables contain carbs too. Those foods pack antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and energy. “Even white pasta provides some of the longest-lasting energy,” says Ball.
Don’t overcook your pasta, she says. Water-logged pasta has a higher glycemic index (which means you're hungry again quicker) than perfectly cooked 'al dente' pasta. So follow the box directions closely.
Cook with olive oil
Olive oil is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet. It contains monounsaturated fats, a kind that’s been linked to lower total cholesterol level and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol.
With so many choices, which kind should you buy? “We recommended looking for an extra-virgin olive oil that fits your budget, as it’s the staple fat used in the bulk of Mediterranean recipes,” says co-author Deanna Segrave-Daly, RD.
Season with citrus
Instead of reflexively reaching for the salt shaker, a squeeze of lemon can add lots of sodium-free flavor. “This pop of flavor may add the 'sparkle' that you're looking for, without more salt,” says Ball. Citrus zest (the outer layer of the peel) delivers lots of flavor too. Use a microplane or simple vegetable grater to remove it.
Eat fish twice a week
Higher-fat fish like salmon and mackerel contain heart-healthy omega-3 fats, but all kinds of fish (and shellfish) are healthy protein sources. If you’re intimidated by cooking fish, try microwaving it. “This way it's moist and hard to overcook, and fillets are usually done in less than 2 minutes,” says Ball. Here’s how: Place fish in a glass dish, add a few squirts of lemon juice, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and microwave in 30-second increments until done.
Include more yogurt
Start thinking of this healthy, fermented food as something beyond a sweet breakfast or snack, but also a savory ingredient you add to meals. Ball recommends choosing plain, 2% Greek yogurt. “Adding a swirl of tangy yogurt to spicy, veggie-forward, or meaty dishes makes all the flavors pop,” she says.
Here’s a trick for making a healthy mayo swap: Combine 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt with 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Use it anywhere you would use mayonnaise, like egg salad, as a dip with raw veggies, over fish, or drizzled over roasted potatoes.
Eat veggies at every meal (even breakfast!)
Veggies aren’t just for dinner. Focus on what veggies you can add to every meal, including breakfast (like greens and tomatoes in omelets). And remember that beans are veggies too. “We like to mash canned beans with avocado, a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and then spread it on toast for breakfast,” says Segrave-Daly.