The Mediterranean diet for beginners: A starter guide

by | Oct 11, 2022 | Last updated Feb 25, 2023

  • The Mediterranean diet is a balanced approach to eating based on the traditional cuisines of coastal countries like Italy, Greece, and Spain.
  • It focuses on eating whole grains, vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as seafood and lean meats, low-fat dairy, and olive oil.
  • There’s a ton of research showing the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet has been popular for decades. It’s recommended by doctors and dietitians, sustainable, and includes lots of delicious and heart-healthy foods.

It’s not like other restrictive diets that say you can’t eat this or that. Rather, it’s a flexible approach to eating that emphasizes healthy foods—like fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats.

We spoke to Noom coach Ashley Bannister, MS, RDN, about the pros and cons of the Mediterranean diet and where to begin. Read on to learn more.

Note: Consult with your medical provider before making dietary changes.

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What is the Mediterranean diet?

“The Mediterranean diet isn’t a strict plan, but a balanced way of eating that emphasizes fruits and veggies, as well as protein and healthy fats,” says Bannister.

It’s based on the traditional cuisines of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy, Greece, France, and Spain.

The diet focuses on plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as seafood and lean meats, low-fat dairy, and olive oil.

It also incorporates the flavors, cooking methods, values, and lifestyle of the region—such as eating sustainably, enjoying high-quality foods, and staying physically active.

Where did the Mediterranean diet come from?

People who live near the Mediterranean have been eating this way for ages. But the American scientist, Ancel Keys, is credited with discovering, defining, and promoting the Mediterranean diet in the 1950s and ’60s.

Keys recognized that people living in the small towns of Italy were in better general health than wealthy Americans living in New York. He thought that might be because of differences in their diets, so he led the Seven Countries Study (which included the United States, Finland, Japan, Holland, Italy, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia).

Through his research, Keys found that following a Mediterranean-style diet resulted in a lower risk of coronary heart disease.

The pros and cons of the Mediterranean diet

Everyone’s needs are different, so there’s no one diet that will work for everyone. Like any way of eating, the Mediterranean diet has both benefits and drawbacks.

What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet?

“The Mediterranean diet can improve metabolic conditions and heart health due to its emphasis on fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and heart-healthy fats,” says Bannister.

Much research has been done on the Mediterranean diet (or MedDiet, as it’s often called in studies) over the years, and experts have identified several health benefits:

  • Improved cardiovascular health.

    Research has found that a Mediterranean diet can help significantly lower a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

    In fact, one study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to experience a major cardiovascular event than those who followed a low-fat diet.

  • Reduced risk of chronic disease and increased life expectancy.

    Research indicates that the Mediterranean diet can help lower cholesterol levels, protect against chronic inflammation, and reduce a person’s risk of developing certain cancers.

  • Weight loss and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

    Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can help reduce the risk of obesity and adult-onset diabetes, as well as mortality in overweight people.

  • Improved brain function.

    Research suggests that following a Mediterranean diet can improve cognitive function in older people, including those with and without cognitive impairments, like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Another big benefit to the Mediterranean diet? It’s easier to stick with than other popular diets (like a low-carb or keto diet) because it’s much less restrictive.

For example, due to the extremely low amount of carbs allowed on the keto diet, many people find that they aren’t able to eat certain foods they enjoy. This can make it difficult to stay on the keto diet long term.

The Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, is a more flexible way of eating because it doesn’t cut out any food groups—it just emphasizes some foods over others. So enjoy that delicious brownie or glass of wine and just focus on eating whole foods during your next meal. 

What are the drawbacks of the Mediterranean diet?

For some people, the most challenging thing about the Mediterranean diet is cutting back on sweets and processed foods. They’re not forbidden, but they should be limited—and that can be a big adjustment.

And with the diet’s emphasis on high-quality, organic, and sustainably sourced foods, it may be more expensive than a diet of processed foods.

Another drawback of the Mediterranean diet is that it can be difficult to follow if you don’t have regular access to seafood or fresh fruits and vegetables.

While fresh ingredients are preferred on the Mediterranean diet, if they’re not available, frozen or canned meats and veggies are good options.

What to eat on the Mediterranean diet (and what to avoid)

As we mentioned, there’s no one way to follow the Mediterranean diet—there are 22 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, each with its own regional cuisines. But there are some general themes.

“Vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein are all emphasized in the Mediterranean diet,” says Bannister.

But because the diet isn’t highly restrictive, there’s also room for treats and even an occasional glass of wine.

What Mediterranean diet foods can you eat?

While plant-based foods are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, it’s not about what you can or can’t eat. It’s more about how you portion your meals and how often you enjoy certain foods.

The Mediterranean diet pyramid was created in 1993 by the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO).

It breaks food groups into four broad categories to help guide your food choices.

1. Fruits, vegetables, grains (mostly whole), olive oil, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices

These foods, which sit at the bottom of the pyramid, should serve as the base for your meals and be enjoyed daily.

Unlike the keto or paleo diets, there’s no distinction between high-carb and low-carb vegetables—all fruits and veggies are encouraged (yep, even potatoes). 

2. Fish and seafood

Fish and seafood, such as salmon, shrimp, tuna, scallops, and white fish, are an excellent source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s recommended to eat these foods at least twice per week. 

If seafood isn’t your thing, that’s okay—you can just focus on plant- and poultry-based meals instead.

3. Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt

These protein-rich foods can be eaten daily or weekly but shouldn’t be the star of the meal.

Whenever possible, choose less-processed dairy products—like unsweetened Greek yogurt, feta, parmesan, and fresh mozzarella cheese.

4. Red meat, sweets, and alcohol

Red meat, such as beef and pork, along with sweet treats, sit at the top of the pyramid. These foods should be enjoyed occasionally.

Red wine, in moderation, can also be part of the Mediterranean diet. (Cheers to that.)

Find a comprehensive Mediterranean diet foods list here.

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What foods are not allowed on the Mediterranean diet?

No foods are off limits on the Mediterranean diet. But, as we mentioned, some foods should be eaten with less frequency—like red meat, sweets, and processed foods.

You might wonder what, exactly, makes a food “processed.”

While almost all food has been processed to some degree, it may be as minimal as cleaning, cutting, canning, or freezing. These foods are considered “minimally processed” and fine to eat.

By contrast, heavily processed foods—like packaged cookies, crackers, deli meat, and frozen meals—are often full of preservatives and sugar and lacking in nutrients (thanks to the processing). So it’s best to limit these whenever possible.

What Mediterranean diet meal plan is good to start with?

There’s no single way to follow this diet. Generally speaking, a Mediterranean meal plan likely includes a few meatless meals per week, along with two to three seafood dishes, and one to two chicken or other lean meat-based meals.

A day’s worth of meals on the Mediterranean diet might look something like this:

Breakfast: Greek yogurt with granola and fresh fruit.
Lunch: Tuna salad in pita bread with grapes on the side.
Snack: Hummus with bell pepper strips for dipping.
Dinner: Orzo with grilled shrimp and spinach sautéed in garlic and olive oil.

Exercise: Time to reflect

Close your eyes. Imagine you live in Greece, and you’re sitting down to a relaxing dinner overlooking the Mediterranean.  What would you eat? Bread, olive oil, tomatoes? Fish? Steak?

Remember, all foods are allowed on the Mediterranean diet, but certain items like red meat should be limited to a few times a month.

How to start the Mediterranean diet

Any time you make dietary changes, it’s a good idea to do so gradually. Here’s what Bannister recommends for people starting out with the Mediterranean diet:

  1. Start by incorporating more whole foods—like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean protein—into your diet.
  2. Use olive oil instead of butter when cooking.
  3. Snack on nuts and seeds for an energy boost between meals.
  4. Make vegetables your base—use protein for flavoring, not for the bulk of your meal.
  5. Swap out the red meat for seafood, starting with once a week and working your way up to two or three times per week.

Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up if you have a hard time adopting these behaviors. Any progress is progress.

And remember, no foods are forbidden on the Mediterranean diet, so there’s no such thing as “falling off the wagon.” Craving a cheeseburger? Enjoy it without guilt, and make chickpeas, lentils, or greens the star of your next meal.

Mediterranean diet FAQs

That was a lot of information to take in, we know. To provide you with some simple, straightforward answers, here are a few frequently asked questions about the Mediterranean diet for beginners.

Is the Mediterranean diet healthy?

The Mediterranean diet is a nutrient-dense diet thanks to its emphasis on whole foods and healthy fats.

It recommends building meals around plant-based foods and adding lean proteins that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Studies have shown that following a Mediterranean diet can improve brain and heart health, reduce your risk for chronic diseases, and increase life expectancy.  

What is the difference between a Mediterranean diet and a typical American diet?

Typical American diets tend to include more meat, carbohydrates, saturated fats, and processed foods than a Mediterranean diet.

Mediterranean diets encourage more plant-based foods—like vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats.

Is the Mediterranean diet low carb?

No, the Mediterranean diet is not low carb. High-carb grains like pasta, whole wheat bread, and legumes are recommended daily.

The diet doesn’t restrict any food groups. Instead, it encourages eating a variety of foods, including carbohydrates, as well as healthy fats.

Where should the majority of fat in the Mediterranean diet come from?

Fat in a Mediterranean diet typically comes from olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish like tuna, salmon, and sardines.

The diet recommends limiting saturated fats, which can increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.

Can you do the Mediterranean diet and intermittent fasting together?

Yes, it is possible to do intermittent fasting while following the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet would determine what foods you eat, while your intermittent fasting schedule would determine when you eat them.

It’s not necessarily recommended, though, as one of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet is its non-restrictive nature.

Does Noom work with the Mediterranean diet?

Noom’s philosophy is all about finding balance and creating a sustainable approach to weight loss. The Mediterranean diet puts that mindset into practice.

So if you’re trying to lose weight with the Mediterranean diet, Noom can help.

Our color-coded food logger guides you to choose nutritious, low-calorie-density foods to help you stay in a calorie deficit. And our daily lessons and community support help you make positive, sustainable changes that can help you reach your long-term weight loss goals.