Stock your kitchen with these minimally processed foods that promote the healthiest dietary pattern—the Mediterranean Diet.

Jamie Vespa, M.S., R.D.
November 15, 2019

Pictured Recipe: Caprese Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Ranked the No. 1 dietary pattern of the year in 2019 by U.S. News & World Report, the Mediterranean diet is far from novel. The centuries-old way of eating is native to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea; however, it's only become the subject of scientific nutrition deep-dives in the last 50 or so years.

A great body of evidence shows that this way of eating—brimming with plant-based foods, healthy fats, lean proteins, whole grains and moderate amounts of wine, may help you live longer and stave off chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found a whopping 30% lower incidence of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease in high-risk individuals who followed a Mediterranean diet over a five-year period than in those who ate a low-fat diet. (Learn more about how to get started eating a Mediterranean diet.)

One key component of the Mediterranean diet is the emphasis on foods that may thwart inflammation and oxidative stress, which is at the root of many chronic diseases. These foods include omega-3-rich fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and healthy oils. The dietary pattern is particularly rich in monounsaturated fats, which can help decrease bad LDL cholesterol and raise good HDL cholesterol—a win-win for the cardiovascular system. Plus, the heightened emphasis on plant-based foods ensures a bounty of fiber and phytonutrients.

The prominence of plant foods in the Mediterranean diet leaves little room for processed foods, added sugar and saturated fat. And although full-fat dairy is still consumed in moderation, red meat and sweets are limited to a few times per month. Wine is enjoyed in moderation with dinner, however when it's not poured, water is the beverage of choice.

Beyond specific food groups, a large part of the Mediterranean lifestyle is based on healthy habits: cooking meals at home (and enjoying them with company), living an active lifestyle and practicing mindful eating with reasonable portion sizes.

At its core, the culinary landscape around the Mediterranean diet is quite simple. It hinges on preparing fresh, seasonal foods simply to let the quality and inherent taste of each ingredient shine. Read on for a list of Mediterranean must-haves.

The Ultimate Mediterranean Shopping List

Pictured recipe: Greek Cauliflower Rice Bowls with Grilled Chicken

Extra-virgin olive oil

Varying dietary patterns make up the overall Mediterranean diet, but olive oil is at the core of each one. Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in tocopherols, carotenoids and polyphenols, giving it antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This kitchen staple is as versatile in cooking as it is for everyday staples, such as dips, spreads and salad dressings. When shopping for a high-quality olive oil, look for one in a dark bottle. Light and heat can cause the delicate fats to go rancid, and the tinting helps protect it. Once you bring your oil home, store it in a cool, dark place to preserve its quality. (Learn more about the health benefits of olive oil.)

Fresh fruits and veggies

Fresh, locally sourced, seasonal produce takes center stage in Mediterranean cuisine. Dark leafy greens such as kale, beet greens, mustard greens and collard greens are often added to frittatas, beans and lentil soups. Wild greens like rocket, chicory and dandelion are also popular in both cooked and raw dishes. Other vegetables common to this region include artichokes, beets, broccoli, cucumber, eggplant, mushrooms, radishes and onions. Garlic, in particular, is a mainstay in Mediterranean cooking; it's used as a versatile flavor agent in everything from sauces and soups to grain dishes (and it packs some impressive health benefits).

Fruits common to the Mediterranean diet include apples, apricots, avocados, berries, citrus, dates, figs, grapes, stone fruit and pomegranate. Lemons are often used to squeeze over fish, veggies, soups and beans for a fresh finish.

Fresh herbs and spices

Aromatic herbs and spices are staples in Mediterranean cooking. These plant-based seasoning agents reduce the need for to add excess salt, plus they provide health-promoting antioxidants. Each region in the Mediterranean has different flavor preferences; however, you can count on parsley, basil, oregano, coriander and bay leaves to make frequent appearances. Use fresh basil to make homemade pesto, or a bunch of parsley to form the base of a zesty gremolata.

Fresh and canned seafood

Fish and shellfish are key sources of protein and healthy fats in the Mediterranean diet. Omega-3–rich fish such as tuna, sardines and salmon are enjoyed fresh or canned. Mussels, clams and shrimp are often featured in pasta and grain dishes, or simply served with lemon, olive oil and herbs. Most Mediterranean patterns encourage seafood consumption twice per week.

Whole grains

Wheat is the foundation grain of the Mediterranean. Farro is one of the traditional grains used in both hot dishes and cold salads in Italy. Another classic grain is bulgur, which is made from cracked wheat berries and used in pilafs and tabbouleh. Couscous, pasta and barley are also commonly found in different regions. When shopping for whole grains, look for the term "whole" or "whole grain" on the front of the package and in the ingredient list—it should be the first ingredient listed.

Legumes (dried and canned)

One of the most prevalent pulses in Mediterranean cuisine is the chickpea, which is whipped into hummus, formed in falafel and tossed into salads. Lentils are also commonly used in soups and stews for tasty one-pot meals packed with fiber and protein. Black-eyed peas, kidney beans and cannellini beans are often tossed into salads with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh squeeze of lemon.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are enjoyed as a satisfying snack thanks to their trifecta of fiber, protein and fat. A common condiment on the coastline of the Mediterranean is tahini, which is made from ground sesame seeds. Most famously used in hummus, this versatile condiment also makes salad dressings sing. Use it in sauces or dressings to spoon over roasted veggies or grain bowls.

Olives and capers

Table olives are enjoyed as a simple snack, or to complement a tray of crudités. Kalamata olives are among the most popular and are often tossed into Greek salads and pasta, or blitzed into tapenade. Olives are rich sources of antioxidant polyphenols and heart-healthy fats. Brined or dried, capers are praised for their briny bite and the way they effortlessly punch up the flavor of pasta, baked fish and dressings.

Canned tomatoes

Whole, diced, stewed or concentrated into a paste, both canned and fresh tomatoes are everyday staples in the Mediterranean. Canned tomato products are particularly rich in lycopene (due to the heating process), which may help protect against certain cancers. A few tomato-centric staples in the Mediterranean include shakshuka, stuffed tomatoes, baked fish with tomatoes, and, of course, marinara sauce.

Greek yogurt and artisanal cheeses

The Mediterranean diet encourages savoring small amounts of full-fat dairy, alongside plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In addition to providing extra protein to plant-centric meals, yogurt is fermented and rich in gut-healthy probiotics. This region spotlights traditionally cultured cheeses (made from milk and natural cultures), as opposed to some of the more processed varieties commonly available in the U.S.

Beyond being used in the classic Greek salad, feta cheese often accompanies stews and fish dishes. Halloumi cheese is known for its firm texture, which makes it suitable for grilling and frying. Harder cheeses like Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano are often grated into pasta, while manchego can be baked into egg dishes.

Red wine

Wine is a common accompaniment to Mediterranean meals but it's generally consumed in moderation (a 5-ounce pour is the standard). Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidant polyphenols and the flavonoid resveratrol, which may help increase HDL cholesterol and decrease LDL cholesterol levels (learn more about the health benefits of wine).

Bottom Line

At its core, the Mediterranean diet paves the way for a minimally processed way of eating. The overall culinary landscape is rooted in preparing fresh, seasonal ingredients with plant-based flavor agents (olive oil, citrus, herbs and spices), whole grains and lean proteins.

However eating like those in the Mediterranean is as much a lifestyle as it is a meal pattern. Take time to cook meals at home (and enjoy them in the company of others) and be mindful of portion sizes and waste. Adopt these basic principles and stock up with items off our shopping list, and you're on your way to experiencing the magic of the Mediterranean.

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