9 Mediterranean Diet Ingredients Dietitians Say They Can't Live Without
Skip the juice cleanses or detoxes. Your body's best option lies in eating whole foods—especially those that fit the typical Mediterranean diet.
There's a reason why it's been voted the Best Diet Overall by U.S. News & World Report for several years: Eating Mediterranean has been linked to a longer lifespan and less risk for cardiovascular disease, according to an October 2016 review in BMC Medicine.
"People who eat a Mediterranean-style diet—think Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Morocco—tend to eat more plant-based foods, lots of healthy fats from olive oil and nuts, plenty of seafood, little red meat, modest amounts of dairy and a bit of wine with meals," explains Julie Upton, M.S., RD, co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health in San Francisco. "They skip processed packaged foods and use more natural sugars and dried fruit as sweeteners."
As a result of all of the above, they have less risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, metabolic syndrome and obesity—plus they live longer, healthier lives.
And, bonus: It doesn't feel like a regular "diet" at all. Think of it more as a lifestyle, adds Samantha Cassetty, M.S., RD, an advisor to Performance Kitchen.
"People often think of a 'diet' as a restrictive form of eating, but the Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle that emphasizes appreciating food and enjoying meals with family and friends. The focus is on plant foods, but it doesn't eliminate anything. Because of the plant focus, it's one of the healthiest ways to eat, and since nothing is off-limits, it's also a sustainable eating pattern," Cassetty says.
While calorie or macronutrient tracking isn't required, the average Mediterranean diet generally works out to about 50 to 60% of calories from carbohydrates (mostly from whole grains, fruits, veggies and legumes), 25 to 35% from unsaturated fats and about 15 to 25% from lean protein. Unlike the keto diet that asks followers to restrict carbohydrates or the Whole30 that puts legumes, grains and alcohol on the no-no list, nothing is entirely restricted on the Mediterranean diet. (Check out our complete guide for how to get started with the Mediterranean Diet yourself and try this easy Mediterranean diet plan for beginners if you like to have your menu planned out in advance.)
While you can eat anything on this diet in moderation, there are certain all-star refrigerator and pantry staples that make it easier and affordable to go Med more often. So we tapped nine dietitians to share their personal must-have Mediterranean shopping list additions so you can keep calm, cook on and live long.
9 Dietitian-Approved Mediterranean Diet Foods
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
If there ever was a mascot for the Mediterranean diet, this is it, says Laura Burak, RD, owner of Laura Burak Nutrition in Roslyn, New York.
EVOO, as Rachael Ray calls it, "is an excellent source of monounsaturated heart-healthy fats and antioxidants, which significant research has shown can reduce your risk for chronic inflammation and several diseases. Plus, it tastes great with almost everything I cook," Burak says.
She transfers oil into a mister (like this Misto Olive Oil Sprayer, $9.99) to spray veggies and potatoes before roasting in the oven and to coat pans so food doesn't stick.
"I also drizzle it onto salad or use it as a main ingredient in sauces and dressings," she adds.
Speaking of those heart-healthy, fiber- and antioxidant-rich fruits, Mary Stewart, RD, LD, the founder of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas, loves them as is in both black and green varieties.
"If I had to pick just one olive as my favorite, I'd say Castelvetrano olives. They're a beautiful emerald green color and have a sweet, mild and buttery flavor. Plus they have an excellent shelf life," she says.
Beyond popping olives as a snack, Stewart enjoys blending them into spreads or dips and tossing them into salads. Not into Castelvetranos? We love these black olive snack packs that come in juice-free containers for easy transport.
Gone are the days of the low-fat and no-fat diets. And good riddance, according to Katherine Brooking, M.S., RD, co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health in San Francisco.
"One of the things I love about the Mediterranean diet is that it encourages the use of healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and avocados. In particular, I love the taste and creamy texture of avocados. As a snack and addition to main meals I find they help me to stay full for longer."
Brooking admits that avocado toast feels a bit 2010: "But I still love it." She also frequently adds avocado to salads for staying power.
As the base for a vinaigrette recipe, a roast fish or chicken dish or even a flavoring for an olive oil cake, citrus stars in many of the go-to Mediterranean diet recipes, says Upton.
"Lemons are rich in vitamin C, potassium and B vitamins and many other beneficial flavonoids and other bioactive compounds that help fend off chronic diseases," she says.
Plus they usually last at least two weeks when stored in the refrigerator. Try them as part of a side like this Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Preserved Lemon, for dinner in this Quinoa, Chicken and Broccoli Salad with Roasted Lemon Dressing or mixed into a dessert such as these Easy Lemon Soufflés.
It's about time more Americans decided to follow the lead of people from the Mediterranean region and go fish, Jaclyn London, M.S., RD, CDN, head of nutrition and wellness at WW, believes. "Seafood is a major part of the Mediterranean eating style—and something Western diets seriously lack. According to the USDA, 80 to 90% of Americans aren't eating enough," London says.
The average U.S. per capita seafood consumption is about 2.7 ounces versus the recommended 8 ounces per week. London is wild about seafood's omega-3 fats that may reduce risk of chronic diseases, boost cognition and tame inflammation.
Don't be tricked into thinking it has to be fresh to be fantastic, she says. "You don't always need to buy fresh seafood to get all the health benefits. And the same goes for fruits and veggies, by the way. Items may not be in-season, readily accessible where you live, or within your budget. That's why canned [or frozen] varieties are so useful," she says, including canned tuna or salmon or tinned fish like sardines. "Another big plus: They're shelf-stable! And from a nutritional standpoint, one 3-ounce serving of canned fish can meet 100% of your daily omega-3 fatty acid needs."
Available in dried or canned varieties, these legumes (aka garbanzo beans) are one of the most versatile pantry staples ever.
"In addition to being convenient and filling, they are a nutritional powerhouse, containing dietary fiber and vegetarian protein," says Michelle Hyman, RD, a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss in New York City. "I make a vegetable salad containing chickpeas nearly every week as part of my packed lunch, and have also roasted chickpeas with garlic powder, chives and red pepper flakes to use as a snack or on top of the salad instead of croutons."
Or blend them up into a homemade hummus and dive in with whole-grain crackers and carrots, she recommends.
Skip the sugary cereal or fast-food biscuit sandwich for breakfast and eat oats instead, suggests Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
"This healthy whole grain contains a form of soluble fiber called beta glucan that can help to manage cholesterol and blood sugar," she says. "Oats are so versatile and you can make a huge variety of creations that are sweet or savory for any time of the day. My go-to favorites are an old-fashioned bowl of oatmeal, overnight oats and energy balls. I also grind the oats into flour to use for baking, pancakes or even as a satisfying add-in to smoothies." (And don't miss these 4 dietitian-approved hacks to make your oatmeal taste so much better.)
It's not just olives, avocados and fish that offer those healthy fats on the Mediterranean diet. Nuts and seeds do too, and the body benefits when you go nuts, notes Cassetty.
Women who ate walnuts while in midlife experienced better well-being—fewer chronic diseases and less memory or mental health problems—into older age, according to a study in the January 2020 Journal of Aging Research.
"Walnuts are a staple of the Mediterranean diet and my pantry! There are so many ways to eat them. Some of my favorites are as a snack paired with grapes, on top of a bowl of plain yogurt mixed with blueberries and [finely chopped] as a crust for salmon," Cassetty says.
Seeds also deliver on both the healthy fat and fiber front, says Kelli McGrane, RD, a Denver, Colorado-based contributing dietitian for the Lose It! App.
For instance, 2 tablespoons of chia seeds delivers 9 grams of fat (5 grams of those are omega-3s), 5 grams of protein and a whopping 10 grams of fiber in a 138-calorie package.
Why stick to just one seed, though, when you can mix things up, McGrane asks?
"Generally speaking, the Mediterranean diet recommends about a handful of nuts or seeds per day, or about 1 ounce. Chia seeds, ground flaxseeds and hemp seeds are all healthy additions to yogurt, oatmeal, salads and smoothies," she says, and by stocking up on multiple types of seeds, you can score a nice variety of antioxidants and flavors.