What Is a Green Mediterranean Diet—and Is It Healthy?

This minor modification might make the heart-healthy diet even better for you *and* the planet.

A food pyramid of the Mediterranean diet with the meat section crossed out
Photo: Getty Images / Kristina Dukart

Rich in fiber, color, omega-3 fats and whole grains, the Mediterranean diet has been shown by hundreds—if not thousands—of studies to be a boon for your brain, heart, gut and longevity. No wonder it was ranked as the overall healthiest diet of 2022, according to U.S. News and World Report.

But what if a few tiny tweaks on the plan can make it even better for you—and Mother Nature? That's what proponents of the "green" Mediterranean diet, which involves eschewing all meat and leaning into even more greens, believe their new diet can do.

Animal-based foods account for about 57% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, per a September 2021 study in the journal Nature, while plant-based foods account for about 29%. If every human decided to go vegan tomorrow, the amount of farmland required to feed the world would be reduced by about 76%, according to a June 2018 study in Science.

"Eliminating meat intake—beef, pork, lamb—is by far the most important single way to reduce the carbon footprint from diet. The contribution of meat to greenhouse gas emissions is enormous compared with other foods," Meir Stampfer, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and one of the authors of the green Mediterranean diet studies, tells Medical News Today.

Plus, those who eat little to no meat tend to have lower risk for certain types of cancer, reports a new BMC Medicine study, just published in February 2022.

What Is the Green Mediterranean Diet? And How Does It Compare to the Classic Mediterranean Diet?

A traditional Mediterranean diet promotes eating the rainbow via ...

  • Large amounts of: Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, as well as healthy fats from nuts, seeds and olive oil
  • Moderate amounts of: Dairy, fish, red wine
  • Low amounts of: Red meat and eggs (less than the standard American diet), processed foods, refined grains, added sugars

The resulting combo platter is potent in polyphenols, heart-healthy unsaturated fats and fiber, which helps to lower bad cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity and reduce chronic inflammation.

The "green" addition takes this plan and strips it of meat and promotes plant-based proteins instead. You can still eat some fish and poultry, along with dairy products, and the diet encourages green tea, walnuts and Mankai duckweed**. Scientists behind a November 2020 study in the journal Heart say this combination might amplify these Mediterranean diet health benefits even more.

To study this, the researchers tapped 294 people with an average age of 51 (at the start of the trial) and abdominal obesity to embark on one of three diets:

  • An overall generally "healthy diet"
  • A calorie-restricted classic Mediterranean diet that included less red meat and 28 grams of walnuts* (1/4 cup) per day
  • A calorie-restricted green Mediterranean diet that included 28 grams of walnuts (¼ cup) per day, 3 to 4 cups of green tea and 100 grams of Mankai duckweed shake—as well as no red or processed meats and little, if any, poultry

* Walnuts are the only tree nut that is an "excellent source" of the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

** Mankai is a tiny vegetable that's often sold in supplemental form due to its ability to replace all of the essential amino acids and vitamin B12 in meat. Mankai was just a test, and other plant proteins like these top vegetarian protein sources would work as well, the researchers admit. "You can easily get all the protein you need without eating any meat, or without eating any animal products," Stampfer adds to Medical News Today.

What Are the Benefits of the Green Mediterranean Diet?

After 6 months, both Mediterranean diets led to more weight loss and greater metabolic wins than the standard "eat healthy" advice. The green Mediterranean diet in particular was correlated with the largest reduction in waist circumference and other biomarkers of heart disease risk (including lower blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol, better insulin sensitivity and less chronic inflammation).

A follow-up study determined that a green Mediterranean diet can also help people lose fat in their liver—a very important factor for all humans, especially the 25% who have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can progress into cirrhosis and liver failure.

One additional study looked at the possible brain benefits of going green, and the researchers found that both Mediterranean menus slowed the shrinkage of the hippocampus (a portion of the brain that impacts our ability to learn and remember). A green Mediterranean diet appeared to offer the highest amount of protection against brain atrophy. Over time, this may mean a lower risk for dementia.

The researchers believe that eating less red and processed meats and more polyphenols may be the reason behind the bonus benefits of going green.

The Bottom Line

Our on-staff dietitians are ardent supporters of any style of the Mediterranean diet, so if you're interested in having a lower eco-impact and possibly more brain, heart and overall health benefits, it certainly can't hurt to consider giving the green Mediterranean menu a shot. That being said, one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet is how easy it is to follow. So, if you find yourself struggling to get by with less meat, don't feel like you need to give it up completely. Simply eating a little less can have potential benefits, too.

Since iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and other vitamins and minerals are often part of our diets thanks to meat and dairy foods, it's important to work with a dietitian and your doctor any time you're embarking on a nearly or completely vegan diet like the green Mediterranean diet. It is possible to cover your nutritional needs without supplementation, but this takes some planning and a savvy menu strategy.

Also important to note: While many plants are easier on the earth than animal food production, not all plant-based foods are ultra-green. Certain nuts and avocados, for instance, require a fair amount of water to produce. If you're considering green-ifying your diet for the planet, check out the 5 best foods for the environment—and the 5 worst from our friends at Real Simple.

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