The term “Mediterranean diet” is slightly misleading, as it doesn’t accurately reflect the true culinary and dietary habits of the entire Mediterranean region. Nonetheless, it does reflect eating habits in Crete, Southern Italy, and parts of Spain with an unusually large number of nonagenarians and centenarians – individuals that live past ninety and a hundred years, respectively.
Basically, this diet is characterized by an abundance of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, legumes, as well as whole grain (stay away from refined flour!) Breads, pastas, rice, and nuts.
The main fat source is olive oil. As far as protein is concerned, fish and seafood is the main source, and many adherents of the Mediterranean diet recommend eating fish as often as twice a week. Other sources of protein include moderate and occasional servings of poultry, dairy products (yogurt, cheeses) and eggs.
Red meat is eaten in small quantities, with a rule of thumb being “lesser and leaner” . Meals are accompanied with a small serving of wine (one glass per meal).
This diet is balanced, nutritious, highly varied, contains an abundance of macronutrients, and is rich in cancer-fighting anti-oxidant substances. Additionally, it is low in aptly named “bad fat” (saturated fats) while at the same time it’s high in healthy polyunsaturated fats and omega 3. It’s also high in fiber.
So, what does the Mediterranean diet consist of? Here is a breakdown of the Mediterranean diet by nutritional category:
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Carbohydrates should make up 50% of the total energetic intake. Ideally, these should be complex carbohydrates (pastas, rice, potatoes, bread, and legumes) and non-simple carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables are also rich not only in the right kind of carbohydrates, but also fiber, vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.
Fats and Lipids
35% of calories should come from fats and lipids. Particularly, olive oil, which is often referred to as the “healthiest fat on earth”. Nuts are also a good source of fat, fresh fish is also full of healthy polyunsaturated fats, and salmon, mackerel, tuna (particularly albacore) and lake trout are some of the best varieties.
Protein should account for around 15% of total food energy. Obviously, there will be a lot of overlap between sources of fats/lipids and sources of protein.
Protein is necessary for proper healing and tissue regeneration throughout the organism. Animal protein (eggs, dairy, meat, and fish) is more complete than plant based proteins (legumes and cereals). However, when particular vegetables are combined in certain ways (rice and lentils, for example) they can provide protein that is similar to animal protein, but without overdoing it on the fat.
An Easy Diet To Follow
At the end of the day, as long as you remain active, and eat products that are fresh, organic, and seasonal (whenever possible) you will be able to see positive changes in your health. If what we’ve detailed so far in terms of percentages is confusing, perhaps we can break it down a different way.
For each basic category (fish and seafood, vegetables, etc.) we have provided numerous examples, but please don’t consider this to be an exhaustive list. Basically, as long as it’s fresh, and sourced locally it’s a safe bet, and can be included in a “Mediterranean diet”.
The only true enemies would be anything that’s been heavily processed, or contains processed white sugar and/or processed white flour. Basically, if it comes in a package, box, or a can, you should be skeptical, and read the labels carefully.
So here is a basic guide regarding what to eat, and how much of it. In order to find out what constitutes as a “serving” for each particular food, please refer to the guidelines set forth by The United States Department of Agriculture on their page www.choosemyplate.gov.
Also, please keep in mind the amounts we have listed, here are the maximum amounts that should be eaten on a daily/weekly basis…
- Olive Oil – 4 tbsp per day
- Nuts – 3 servings per day (almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, peanuts, pumpkin seed, cashews etc…)
- Fresh Fruits – 3 servings per day (Any fresh fruit. All the better if the fruit is in season.)
- Vegetables – 2 servings per day (Avocado, eggplant, asparagus, beets, cabbage, cucumber, collared greens, fennel, mushrooms, peppers, spinach, and the list goes on and on…you can never go wrong when you eat a wide variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables)
- Fish and Seafood – 2 servings per week (Salmon, tuna, sardines, shrimp, oysters, clams, etc.)
- Legumes – 3 servings per week (Lentils, peas, beans, okra, tomato, potato, yams, etc.)
- Sofrito – 2 servings per week (This is a delicious sauce that consists of tomato, onion, and garlic left to simmer in oil. Different aromatic herbs are added for additional flavor and micro nutrients. There are many different variants of sofrito.)
- Complex Carbohydrates – 3 per week (whole grain breads, whole grain pastas, rice etc…)
- Wine – 1 glass per day