Will the Real Mediterranean Diet Please Stand Up?

Woman hands cutting vegetables in the kitchen
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By now, you’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet and the many health benefits associated with it — reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer and improved cognitive health and longevity.

But of course, these benefits are linked to the real Mediterranean diet, not the heaping bowls of spaghetti and meatballs and pizzas piled high with meat and cheese you might find at some Italian restaurants. Instead, the real Mediterranean diet refers to the traditional diets of people living in Mediterranean regions — it’s a diet of regular people, based in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil and fruit, with smaller amounts of animal proteins and sweets.


Local, seasonal vegetables are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. Tweet this Vegetables are often prepared very simply and flavored with olive oil and lemon. The most popular Mediterranean vegetables are strongly flavored ones, including eggplant, bitter greens, fennel and artichokes. Not only are these vegetables delicious, but the compounds that give them their strong flavors are healthy phytonutrients. Pungent vegetables such as onions, leeks and garlic are used liberally, not just to flavor foods but as the vegetable dish itself.


Common local fruits in the Mediterranean region include figs, oranges, pomegranates, pears, berries and cherries. Fresh fruits are consumed as desserts or snacks, poached in wine or a light syrup, stewed in a compote or baked into a lightly sweetened pastry or cake. Fruits, especially dried fruits, are incorporated into savory dishes such as grains or stews.

Olive Oil

Packed with beneficial fats and antioxidants, many feel olive oil is the key to the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits. It’s used as both a cooking fat and a flavoring ingredient — try a sip of high-quality olive oil and you’ll see how much flavor it can impart! Olive oil is often used as a substitute for butter in baked goods and for dipping bread.

Whole Grains

While the version of Italian food most Americans know is based on white pasta, bread sticks and pizza, real Mediterranean cuisine is traditionally based in whole grains. Many whole grains have a starring role in Mediterranean cuisine, including farro, barley, brown rice, bulgur and polenta. Whole grains are often tossed with other flavorful ingredients such as aromatic vegetables, spices, herbs, dried fruit and — of course — olive oil. Grains are often served as side dishes, stuffed into peppers or eggplant, or used in stews.


Because so many residents live near the sea, fish and other seafood is consumed regularly in Mediterranean cuisine, often at least twice a week. Oily fish, with their higher omega-3 content, are preferred. Most frequently, fish is grilled, stewed or roasted. If fried, it’s a light pan fry in olive oil with a thin, flour crust.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds may be eaten as a snack, but, more commonly, are ingredients in cooking. Nuts may be mixed into rice dishes or salads or used to thicken sauces. The most popular nuts in the Mediterranean region include pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pistachios.

Beans and Legumes

Commonly found beans and legumes in the Mediterranean diet include chickpeas, cannellini beans, lentils and, my personal favorite, gigantes beans — a large, white bean that’s used in Greek cuisine. Protein-filled beans and legumes are staples in the Mediterranean diet. They often are pureed into dips such as hummus or cooked with other vegetables in casseroles, soups or stews.

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Rachael Hartley
Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, is a Columbia, SC, based private practice dietitian and blogger at The Joy of Eating. Connect with her there and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.