5 Easy Steps to Help You Get Started on the Mediterranean Diet

August 6, 2015

greek green bean casseroleThe Mediterranean diet is considered the gold standard of diets. Study after study has proven its benefits for physical and mental health. Some of the first studies noted Greece and southern Italy as the original source of the diet, with the Cretan diet believed to be the purest form of the diet.

Research has shown that it can protect from heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome and even maintain and improve cognitive function, but best of all it is not a restrictive diet. It is not low fat, and it does not prohibit any foods. In other words, it is easy to follow and that is the most important component of any diet. So how do you follow this diet, if it has no restrictions? Drizzle olive oil on your bread? Add feta cheese to everything? Drink wine with your meals? Well, no, not exactly. What is important is what you DO eat, as well as the pattern of eating. Below I provide some easy, but specific guidelines and how to accomplish them that will get you following the Mediterranean diet in no time! These tips are based on the traditional Greek diet which was what the initial Mediterranean diet was based on.
Let’s get started!

1. Move toward more vegetable based meals.

By this I do not mean vegetarian, that are often carb heavy -think pasta with a few vegetables-  but actual main courses that are composed of almost only vegetables. How do you do this? Use the unique technique of cooking vegetables with olive oil and tomato (learn how to here). Greeks have a special category for these dishes known as the ones “cooked in oil”. Almost any vegetable will work. If you were not aware, Greeks are the highest consumers of vegetables in the world, consuming almost a pound a day according to a recent Tufts study. How do they do that? By eating these vegetable casseroles (like the one in the photo above) at least 3 times a week. One serving, which is a large plate of these vegetables is equivalent to 3-4 servings of vegetables. Check out this, this and this recipe for ideas.

2. Stock your pantry and freezer with some Mediterranean basics.

Yes, the Mediterranean diet is all about clean eating, using fresh food. However, there are some frozen and pantry items that will help you go Mediterranean without affecting the nutritional value of your diet:

  • Frozen vegetables. I keep my freezer stocked with frozen green beans and peas. That way I can make my Greek style vegetable casserole anytime of the year.
  • Canned tomatoes. I have tons of canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Again this, I use during the winter months to make the vegetable casseroles.
  • Dry oregano. Yes you need this particular herb and Greeks add it everywhere. Among common herbs, it has the highest antioxidant activity, making it a super-herb.
  • Frozen herbs. I keep in the freezer frozen parsley, dill and basil. Very useful when you do not have them available in fresh form.
  • Whole Grain Barley Cretan Rusks. You can find these in ethnic stores or order them online. They have a long shelf life and are great source of fiber. They are a basic ingredient for the Cretan style salad called dakos, but they are great when accompanied with a dip or just cheese and olives and take the place of bread.

3. Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil…Correctly.

What does this mean? Well, take it from us Greeks who are the highest consumers of olive oil in the world by far, here are some things we do:

  • Know that only extra virgin olive oil contains all those antioxidants, so using other types will have little benefit as well as little taste.
  • Your olive oil needs to be fresh, so if you have a bottle of olive oil in the cabinet since 2010, that you use here and there, you are doing it wrong. Only fresh olive oil has the nutritional value and the flavor. Which takes us to my next point…
  • Use olive oil as the main source of fat in your diet. That means you can sauté, cook and roast with it. There are even desserts you can make with it. How much olive oil a day? Minimally 2-3 tablespoons a day. For more information on using olive oil correctly, check out this post.

4. Eat meat as a side dish.

You’ve heard that the Mediterranean diet is low on meat. How low? Well originally, red meat was limited to one serving a week. If it’s hard to do that, how about trying to have red meat as a side, rather than a main course? So you could technically eat red meat two times a week in this way, an example would be a vegetable casserole with 2 ounces of meat on the side.

5. Make an effort to eat fish, even if it’s canned.

We often hear about how fish is such an important component of the Mediterranean diet, but many people have a hard time with this. Well, it doesn’t have to be fresh. Greek consumed small fish like sardines and anchovies, but those who lived in mountainous areas did not even eat fresh fish as often as we think because it was not available to them. Instead, they ate cured or marinated fish and consumed them on the side. With that in mind you can use canned sardines and anchovies, consume them mixed in pasta or salads, on a toast bruschetta style, heated up with some vegetables or mixed with beans Greek style. Frozen is also a good alternative, cooked in the oven. How often? Minimally 2 times a week.

Photo by Elena Paravantes

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16 Comments

  • Reply Beth August 6, 2015 at 8:20 pm

    Thank you for these really helpful tips. They make it seem much easier to be able to incorporate this way of eating into my daily like.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD August 6, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      Thank you Beth!

  • Reply Ange T Kenos August 6, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    I was once Deputy Chairman of the Hellenic Heart Health Committee (which I named) of the Heart Research Centre (Australia). The Board Chairman was Australia’s leading cardiologist and renowned expert Dr Alan Goble. And we pushed this very same message so my sincere congratulations to you for this article AND keep it up.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD August 6, 2015 at 9:58 pm

      Thank you Ange! Glad we have the same message. I appreciate your comment.

  • Reply Ange T Kenos August 6, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    Sir, I find your comments racist and irrelevant to the substance of the article

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD August 6, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      Hate comments are not tolerated here, which is why the comment you are referring to has been deleted.

  • Reply Susita August 6, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    Dear Elena,

    Thanks so much for this article. I’m a great fan of your newsletter and your wonderful recipes! I spent a year in Greece in the 70’s and loved the food. You have reconnected me with my past. Thanks! Keep up the great work!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD August 7, 2015 at 8:24 am

      Thank you Susita! Glad to bring back the memories!

  • Reply Barbara K August 7, 2015 at 5:47 am

    As a Cretan I would say that is by far the most accurate article I’ve read so far on the Mediterranean diet. Thank you for posting it!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD August 7, 2015 at 8:01 am

      Thank you Barbara!

  • Reply GreekBoston.com August 7, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest diets in the world! Greek people eat this way naturally. Even those who don’t live in Greece could change their health for the better by adopting these principals.

  • Reply Arlena August 7, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    Las year, I spent 6 days living with two scientists and 5 other volunteers in the small village of Vonitsa, Greece, 5 hours from Athens, to study the bottle-nose dolphins in the Ionian Sea. Also. 3 days in Athens as a tourist. Not only is the. Mediterranean diet prevalent every where, but you don’t find junk food in abundance as in America!! Or fast food restaurants. Everything is fresh, snacks were Greek pastries and wonderful ice creams. Street foods from cafés were healthy and the best wine I’ve ever tasted! People so friendly.
    Arlena, From the suburbs of Chicago

  • Reply Sharon Lewis August 8, 2015 at 2:49 am

    Hi from Sharon. I lave been following the Mediterranean diet for almost 12 years. I live in Ohio and some times it is hard to get decent fresh veggies during the winter months. Our growing season is from May to October. There are a lot of good farmers markets in my city. There are also good grocery stores that sell seasonal fresh produce and seafood. I try to eat seasonally as much as possible. I also prefer to buy my extra virgin olive oils online. I really love the Greek olive oils, as they are some of the best in the world. I also love California Olive Ranch olive oil. I have heard about the study from UC Davis on most store bought olive oils, especially some of the big Italian brands. The study said that most of these brands are diluted with cheaper oils. California Olive ranch came out to be the real thing. I buy the Greek olive oils online from a site called oliveoillovers.com and from greekoliveoils.com. I buy the California Olive ranch in the grocery store or online . I also buy a lot of canned tomatoes, beans and frozen veggies. I rarely eat red meat and eat mostly fish and chicken. Ohio has a very good Amish chicken brand called Gerber’s. They raise their chickens naturally and do not feed them hormones or antibiotics.

  • Reply David August 9, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    Elena, thank you for the work that obviously must go into your website. Are there any other websites or any books that you are comfortable recommending?

  • Reply Roxanne February 4, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    Elena, I love your site…and your recipes. Thank you so much for what you do here! 2 years ago I decided to “go Mediterranean” after my cholesterol went sky high (among other things, I suspect using coconut oil almost exclusively for about a year contributed). Anyway, I decided to be very strict about it, thinking I can do anything for three months. Well, in that short time, not only did my cholesterol drop DRAMATICALLY, but I also discovered a way of eating that I absolutely love and I’ll never go back. Thank you again for your site.

  • Reply Bridget April 11, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Thank you so much for this website. I just returned from a trip to Greece and fell in love with not only the people, but the incredible food. I’m starting to gear my diet toward mediterranean foods and can’t wait to use some of your tips.

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