Your beginner guide to the Mediterranean diet: Which foods to eat and what a sample menu looks like

Fish, nuts, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil are key foods in the Mediterranean diet.
Fish, nuts, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil are key foods in the Mediterranean diet. (Getty Images)

You’ve likely heard about the Mediterranean diet — a favorite of both doctors and nutritionists, thanks to its numerous health benefits. But you might not know exactly where to begin if you wanted to try it. The good news is that it’s easier than you might think. Vanessa Perrone, dietitian and author of Everyday Mediterranean, tells Yahoo Life that you don’t have to give up your preferred cuisine or food culture to follow the Mediterranean diet. That’s because, she says, it’s based on easy-to-follow principles — namely, “plant-centric meals, active living and sharing meals as a family.”

Unlike many popular diets, what sets the Mediterranean diet apart is its lack of strict rules, making it a more sustainable approach to healthy eating. In fact, Sarah Koszyk, dietitian, sports nutritionist and author of 365 Snacks for Every Day of the Year, even advises against calling the Mediterranean diet a “diet” because it’s not just a fad or trend, but rather a centuries-old lifestyle.

There's also a good reason why the U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks the Mediterranean diet as one of the healthiest eating patterns to follow. Not only is there research supporting its protective effects against cardiovascular disease, but studies have also shown that sticking with this diet may aid in blood sugar management and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“The Mediterranean diet emphasizes foods that are high in omega-3s, anthocyanins — a group of antioxidants — and other nutrients to support brain health and improve our cognitive function,” Koszyk tells Yahoo Life. Other benefits include lowering the risk of dementia and improving sleep and symptoms of depression.

If you’re thinking about trying this style of eating, read on for nutritionists’ tips on how to ease your way into the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is abundant in whole, plant-based foods, healthy fats — primarily from extra-virgin olive oil — and lean proteins, particularly fish. It’s also low in saturated fat, meats and added sugars. Here’s a helpful overview:

  • Vegetables (broccoli, spinach, arugula, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, artichokes, beets, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, peppers, sweet potatoes)

  • Fruits (berries, apples, melons, grapes, cherries, figs, pomegranates, oranges)

  • Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas)

  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, nut butters)

  • Whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats)

  • Fish and seafood (salmon, tuna, sardines, shrimp, mussels)

  • Healthy fats (extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, avocados)

  • Herbs and spices

  • Water

  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)

  • Eggs

  • Dairy products (cheese, yogurt, milk)

  • Red meat (beef, pork)

  • Fatty or processed meats (hot dogs, sausages, deli meats)

  • Refined grains (white bread, pasta, chips, crackers)

  • Sweets (candy, ice cream, pastries)

  • Sugary drinks (sodas, sweet tea, juice with added sugar, sweetened energy drinks)

  • Wine in small amounts and with meals

Ready to dive in? Experts recommend making gradual changes, such as choosing one or two food items to include into your weekly routine. “Small, mini changes can result in building sustainable, long-term habits,” explains Koszyk.

Aim for three or more colors with each meal, recommends Perrone. “This can be from vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices,” she says. A colorful plate of food is packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and flavor — all of which better help you meet your nutrient needs and support gut health. “The wider variety of plant-based foods in your diet, the bigger the increase in microbiome diversity, too,” Perrone adds. An easy way to start is by serving fruit for dessert, which is a common practice in traditional Mediterranean meals.

Fish is a main source of protein in the Mediterranean diet and is “packed with omega-3’s for heart and brain health,” says Kosyzk. She suggests incorporating seafood, such as fresh or canned salmon or tuna or canned sardines, or any other type of fish, like mackerel, into one lunch and one dinner each week. Need some meal ideas? Try a tuna or salmon sandwich, a salmon burger or grilled mackerel seasoned with lemon and garlic.

“Keeping good quality extra-virgin olive oil on hand is another simple way to ease into the Mediterranean diet,” suggests Perrone. Koszyk explains that the Mediterranean lifestyle emphasizes heart-healthy fats, which promote lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol for optimal heart health. “Consider it a condiment, drizzled on vegetables, used in salad dressings, for everyday cooking or even drizzled on some vanilla ice cream during the summer — it's surprisingly delicious,” says Perrone.

“Stocking up on canned beans, lentils and chickpeas is a great first step,” says Perrone. “They're highly versatile, budget-friendly and conveniently act as a source of plant-based protein and fiber.” Substituting beans and legumes for animal protein also helps to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your meals. Consider using chickpeas in place of ground beef for tacos or lentil based “meatballs” instead of traditional ones.

Opt for whole grains over refined grains whenever possible. Whole grains are richer in protein and fiber, and can keep you fuller for longer between meals. They also better help manage blood sugar levels and support heart health. Try using whole wheat bread in place of white bread for your sandwiches, whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta and quinoa, farro or barley instead white rice.

Breakfast: Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries, honey and chopped almonds or walnuts

Lunch: Farro salad bowl with roasted artichoke, beets, bell peppers, arugula and farro seasoned with chopped fresh parsley, lemon juice and olive oil and topped with sliced avocado, feta cheese and sunflower seeds

Snack: Hummus with carrot and bell pepper sticks

Dinner: Grilled salmon with tomato and olive salsa, whole grain couscous and steamed green beans with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt

Dessert: Bowl of mixed fruit, such as grapes, nectarines and pomegranate

Drinks: Water throughout the day, herbal tea with snacks

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.