6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting the Mediterranean Diet
Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.
Let me start by saying I am not on a "diet." I eat what I want, when I want it (shoutout to intuitive eating!). That said, the way that I eat aligns pretty closely with a Mediterranean eating pattern. The Mediterranean diet places an emphasis on ample produce, whole grains, healthy fats and a mix of plant and animal proteins. Oh, and it intentionally saves space for wine, since it clearly knows the way to my heart. The combo of nutrients, whole foods and flavors of the Mediterranean diet make it super easy to follow and one of the healthiest diets in the world.
I have been eating this way for a while, basically since a short stint eating vegan in college (that did not stick). The types of foods I buy and meals I make are second nature now. However, if you are new to the idea of the Mediterranean diet, it can feel overwhelming to start (check out this beginner guide to help you get started). Learn from my experience with these six things I wish I knew before starting the Mediterranean diet.
1. It doesn't have to be all "Mediterranean" foods
Just because the diet is called "Mediterrananean" doesn't mean that you can only eat recipes that use ingredients and recipes that are popular in the Mediterranean. Though recipes like Greek Roasted Fish with Vegetables, Mediterranean Ravioli with Artichokes & Olives and Falafel Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing are delicious options when following this diet, any type of cuisine can work with this eating pattern. So long as you include ample vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and showcase proteins like fish, legumes and poultry, you are in line with the goals of the diet. So enjoy Jamaican Escovitch Fish, Sour & Spicy Sweet Potato Noodles or Chicken & Tomatillo Enchiladas, or any other type of cuisine you enjoy. Healthy eating does not discriminate!
2. A little planning goes a long way
I've never been a meal prepper, but I do religiously plan my menu each week. Not only does this help me plan for busier days, but also it helps me save money at the store by buying only what I need. Even if you don't plan every day of the week, some meal planning will help set you up for success, especially if you are making a change. This will make it easier to have nutritious meals and snacks at the ready that feature staple ingredients of the Mediterranean diet. For more inspiration, check out our Easy Mediterranean Diet Plan for Beginners and our 30-Day Mediterranean Meal Plan for Summer.
3. Include your friends and family
Though the Mediterranean diet is focused on what is on your plate, there are lifestyle choices associated with the diet too. Being physically active and enjoying meals with others are at the base of the eating pattern. Share a meal with friends when you can and make time to regularly get around the table with those in your household. There are so many reasons why it's important to carve out time for family meals. It helps people have a healthier relationship with food, can improve kids' performance in school and can even help people maintain a healthier weight. Plus, it can help us all feel supported, especially after the last year and a half.
4. Don't strive for perfection
Eating patterns should be sustainable. This is a big part of why diets (especially strict ones) don't work. Just like how your schedule can change day to day, so can your body's needs. Get a lot of movement in a day and feel more hungry? Listen to your body. Have a long holiday weekend where you weren't eating as you normally do? That's life, and totally OK! Instead of obsessing over every morsel of food you eat, give yourself some grace. What matters is what you do most of the time. One meal or snack that is not in line with your eating goals will not derail a healthy diet. Just enjoy out-of-the-ordinary meals, and get back on track with your pattern when you can.
5. Ask for recommendations
If you know other people who follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, ask them for recommendations. When I was starting out, so many other dietitians and colleagues shared their favorite recipes with me. Some of them have even become staples in my routine, like shakshuka. Beyond recipes, getting tips about meal planning, shopping, eating out and more from friends with experience is super helpful. Even if it doesn't all work for you, you will more than likely gain some information you wouldn't have otherwise.
6. Adapt recipes you already make
Trying to overhaul your entire life and eating pattern is a good way to set yourself up for failure. Instead, small changes over time can lead to big results. Adapting foods you already eat to meet the parameters of the Mediterranean diet is a great way to make the eating pattern sustainable for you. For example, try adding additional vegetables to pastas or stir-fries. Blend greens, legumes and yogurt into smoothies for a nutrition boost. Swap out red meat for salmon on a salad or choose shrimp over steak the next time you grill. Little things can compound for an overall healthier diet.
The Mediterranean diet is touted as being one of the healthiest diets in the world—for good reason. It can help improve heart health, strengthen your brain, help with weight loss and more. The diet focuses on the foods you include, rather than excluding food groups or counting calories. This makes it more broad than you might think, but can also make it a little overwhelming at first. Learn from what I've experienced and wish I knew before starting the Mediterranean diet.