10 Healthy Low-Carb Foods from the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is an eating style based on the traditional culinary habits of the countries and cultures bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Now, there are about 22 countries that comprise the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, so there isn't one standard Mediterranean diet. Different cultures certainly practice different cooking methods and flavor combinations. But the general gist is universal.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the consumption of plants. It is a plant-based eating approach, which also focuses on the healthier types of carbohydrates. The majority of the diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes—foods which deliver nutrients, fiber, plant-based protein and, yes, some carbohydrates. People in this region also typically consume fish, poultry, eggs and other dairy products in low to moderate amounts. Moreover, consumption of red meat, refined sugar and processed foods is quite limited. (Here are 7 health lessons we learned from the Mediterranean diet.)
If you're following a low-carbohydrate diet but also have interest in adopting a more Mediterranean approach, below are some of the staples that are lower in carbs, why they rank and quick tips as to how you can incorporate them into your daily diet.
Related: Low-Carb Mediterranean Diet Plan
Salmon is high in protein (a 3-ounce piece has 18 grams) and also loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. Recent research has indicated that a diet with an emphasis on monounsaturated fats can help reduce cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. Salmon also has vitamin B12, vitamin D and selenium, which all play a role in metabolism and growth. (Plus, vitamin D plays an important role in your immune response. Learn more about the best nutrients for your immune system.) Salmon is loaded with an important antioxidant, astaxanthin, which can benefit heart health and overall nervous system function. Salmon can also help you get a healthy meal on the table quickly—these 30-minute salmon dinners are all perfect for busy nights.
2. Olive Oil
Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats you can add to your diet, and it's a staple of the Mediterranean diet. It's loaded with antioxidants that are believed to reduce inflammation and chronic disease. Olive oil is also a great source of monounsaturated fat, and fat helps keep you full. It's a versatile cooking oil: add a tablespoon to your skillet when cooking vegetables, or make a homemade salad dressing with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs. (Learn more about the health benefits of olive oil.)
3. Feta Cheese
Feta is not only delicious, but it's also lower in calories, carbohydrates and fat than many other cheeses. Feta cheese is sharp in flavor and makes a tasty addition to any salad, like the Cucumber, Tomato & Feta Salad (pictured above). Sprinkling some feta on a boring salad changes the flavor profile and makes it more exciting than just lettuce and other vegetables.
Lemons are an overlooked fruit, but they add so much flavor to a dish. Not to mention, the whole lemon is a good source of soluble fiber and loaded with vitamin C. Vitamin C intake is associated with decreased risk of common chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and certain neurological conditions. When it comes to fighting off infections, vitamin C's immune-boosting powers are likely linked to its antioxidant properties. That is, vitamin C (which is an antioxidant itself) helps regenerate other antioxidants—like vitamin E—in the body, thereby decreasing the number of harmful free radicals that can bolster infections. Lemons are easy to incorporate into your day. Try adding lemons to your water, using lemons to flavor baked fish, adding a squeeze of lemon to salads or cooking up one of these lemony dinner recipes.
Tomatoes' red color indicates lots of lycopene, which is a phytochemical linked to cancer prevention and lower risk of heart disease (learn more about the health benefits of tomatoes). Tomatoes are a Mediterranean staple that go with practically any dish. Try them on top of a salad, as a vibrant filling in tacos or eggs, or as a snack with a few pieces of cheese.
Eggs are an eggcellent (see what I did there?) source of protein. One large egg contains 6 grams of protein. Protein helps you feel fuller for longer, which can help prevent overeating throughout the day. Eggs are also high in vitamins. The nutrition profile of eggs is superior to that of most other single foods. This is why they're so amazing. Eggs have:
- Vitamin A, which boosts your immune system and helps prevent eye aging
- Vitamin D, which benefits everything from bone health to your immune system
- Choline, which aids in metabolism
- Vitamin B12, which aids in brain and nervous system functions
- Zinc, which helps boost your immune system, memory, skin health and sleep
- Lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants (in the yolk) which support healthy vision.
Eggs are easy to cook, and keep well if you want to hard-boil a number of them and keep them in the fridge for snacks or to add to salads. If you have more time in the morning, incorporate them into a Vegetable-Filled Omelet.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes the use of beans and legumes for adding protein and fiber to dishes. Since animal products are not the focal point of meals, plant-based proteins are staples. Options like chickpeas, black beans and lentils highlight many Mediterranean dishes. You may be thinking that these aren't low-carb—and they're not, compared to eggs and cheese. A half-cup of black beans has 20 grams of carbohydrates—but also has 8 grams each of fiber and protein. That fiber helps with the digestive process and is beneficial for your gut. If you're eating a very low-carb diet, keep the serving to ¼ cup.
Nuts are an excellent source of plant-based protein and healthy fats. The minimal amount of carbohydrates they do have is mostly in the form of fiber, which helps with fullness and weight management. Nuts and seeds make a great snack but can also be sprinkled on top of your salads and oatmeal, and even paired with vegetables. (Here's more about why nuts are so good for you.)
9. Greek Yogurt
Dairy is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, in moderation. The diet typically incorporates one to three servings of dairy each day. Preferred sources include cheeses like feta, Brie, Parmesan and ricotta, as well as Greek yogurt. Mediterranean eating plans rarely include sweeter or more processed sources of dairy, like American cheese, yogurt with added sugar, or ice cream. Use plain Greek yogurt as a vehicle for adding fruit, fiber and fat. Make a parfait with raspberries and chia seeds to help you hit your daily fiber goals.
10. Leafy greens
Leafy greens are another super-healthy Mediterranean diet staple. Stir them into eggs, create filling salads with greens as a base, or serve fish atop a bed of cooked greens. Leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses and deliver vitamins A, C and K, plus you'll get heart-healthy fiber.