I spent 10 days in Greece following a Mediterranean diet and am excited to share 1) a summary of science-backed Mediterranean diet info, and 2) my personal experiences about putting this sustainable eating approach into practice!
As a PhD with research expertise in food science and dietary interventions, I have always had an appreciation for the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle. While I’ve been incorporating some of the tenets into my eating habits for years, I finally had the chance for an immersive experience!
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Mediterranean Diet Info: The Basics
For a simple overview, the Mediterranean diet consists of mainly: vegetables, fruits, minimally processed whole grains (buckwheat, quinoa, barley, wild rice), healthy fats (hello, extra virgin olive oil!), and seafood or poultry. Dairy and red meat are consumed only occasionally (e.g., weekly), and processed snack foods or fast food are eaten very rarely.
The bottom line for the Mediterranean diet is to prioritize whole foods, especially vegetables, healthy fats, and seafood, and reduce processed foods. In addition, the dishes are very simply prepared, which maximizes their nutrition!
The Science Behind the Mediterranean Diet
The hype behind the Mediterranean way of eating as a “diet” approach began when researchers started noticing that people living in Mediterranean countries, like Greece and Italy, were less likely to get heart disease or have a higher body weight, compared to people living in the United States. This led to studies testing the benefits of the Mediterranean diet as a way to prevent or reverse heart disease and aid in weight management.
Research has widely recognized the Mediterranean diet as one of the most heart-healthy ways of eating, because of the dense micronutrients within the vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and seafood that make up the bulk of the diet. Importantly, a Mediterranean diet served as a primary prevention technique for cardiovascular events (e.g., heart attack) among people at high risk for heart disease (Estruch et al., 2013). Following a Mediterranean diet has also been associated with lower rates of mortality from heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s (Sofi et al., 2008). These are just a few of the many studies supporting the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for heart health, preventing cancer, and preserving cognitive functioning!
Why I Recommend the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is an attractive approach to personally follow for optimal health, as well as a plan I recommend to patients for weight management, because it feels sustainable. You are filling up on delicious whole foods that fuel your body, and the basis of the diet is satisfying protein and healthy fats that keep you feeling full for hours between meals. Overall, the Mediterranean diet teaches you to find simple ways to cook high-quality ingredients (e.g., wild-caught seafood cooked with just olive oil and lemon juice!). This makes you more likely to look forward to eating healthy foods, while reducing how often you’re eating refined carbohydrates, processed fast foods, and packaged snack foods.
My 10-Day Mediterranean Diet Experience in Greece
Me and my partner, Jason, at Ammoudi Bay Fish Tavern in Santorini, Greece.
I followed the Mediterranean diet for 10 days while visiting the beautiful islands of Santorini and Mykonos, as well as the scenic city of Athens. I have always been impressed by the science behind the Mediterranean diet for heart health and have been incorporating some of the principles into my eating habits for years as a way to optimize my diet and prevent cardiovascular disease. However, this was my first time traveling to a Mediterranean country, and I was looking forward to immersing myself in this way of eating!
Breakfast: In addition to enjoying the rich flavor of Greek coffee, my breakfasts typically consisted of vegetables, minimally processed whole grains, seeds, and fruit. Examples included a spinach egg white omelet and a Greek yogurt breakfast bowl with figs, black currant, wheatberries, and pumpkin seeds (pictured below).
When is the last time you remember eating vegetables or seeds for breakfast? This is not typical within the United States but has a powerful influence on keeping your glucose stable throughout the day (learn more about the importance of glucose responses for weight management here!).
Lunch: People take time to step away from their daily schedules and enjoy lunch each day in Greece. Typically, lunches were an array of grilled vegetables, legume-based spreads like fava (made from yellow split peas), and some lean seafood that was simply prepared with just olive oil, spices, and vinegar. Pictured below is a delicious lunch dish of grilled octopus served over a bed of fava (the split pea spread), which I had along with some grilled veggies!
There were fewer options for the typical refined carbohydrate-rich lunch entrees and side dishes we’re familiar with in the United States, like sandwiches with potato chips. The focus of lunch was most commonly vegetables and lean protein, like seafood and poultry.
The typical “fast food” dishes in Greece are gyros and souvlaki– both of which are types of grilled meats served in wraps or as skewers. While these can be prepared with lots of processed oils and high-calorie sauces, especially as they are served in the United States, the preparation in Greece was lighter. The gyros we ordered contained a modest amount of meat grilled with olive oil, a bunch of fresh vegetables, and a yogurt-based sauce called tzatziki that was low in calories (35 calories per 2 tablespoons). The sources of refined carbohydrates were the pita bread it was wrapped in and the few French fries that were tucked inside. When we opted for souvlaki skewers, there were no refined carbohydrates in the meal– just the grilled meat, vegetables, and tzatziki sauce!
Dinner: Dinner is an important aspect of Mediterranean culture, where meals are enjoyed among family and friends and are eaten slowly, with enjoyment. At each dinner, I started with a vegetable-based dish, such as zucchini carpaccio (pictured below).
Then, the main entree for dinner was typically freshly-caught fish, such as sea bass or grilled squid (pictured below). The magic of these seafood dishes was that they were always prepared with only olive oil, spices, and lemon juice. The simple preparation complimented the flavor of the fresh fish, rather than masking it in high-calorie sauces.
Even when I ordered a dish containing red meat, such as the lamb kebab pictured below, it was served alongside more fava (split-pea spread) and lentils, a minimally processed whole grain. This entree looks different from the typical meat and potato dishes we are used to in the United States!
Dessert: My philosophy on enjoying dessert is that it doesn’t need to be healthy, but it should be eaten occasionally and should be worth it when you decide to indulge! The beautiful homemade desserts in Greece were absolutely worth it. It is important to have balance within your diet, and eating vegetables, minimally processed whole grains (like lentils), and lean proteins as the foundation of your nutrition allows for some wiggle room to fit dessert into your day!
My favorite dessert was baklava (pictured below), which consists of many thin layers of filo dough pastry filled with cinnamon and walnuts and topped with pistachios and a honey-like syrup. One of the tips I share with my patients but also use personally is to always share a dessert (or ask for half to be packaged up to-go).
My main takeaways were:
- I felt completely satisfied at every meal, meaning that I enjoyed the simply prepared whole foods as I ate them and was also completely full until the next meal.
- The portion sizes were not necessarily small! By eating a diet based on vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein, you can have a nice-sized meal for a moderate amount of calories, which makes it easier to eat healthily and not feel deprived.
- The food environment in Greece (and other Mediterranean countries) is very different. There are fewer options for ultra-processed fast foods or packaged snack foods, so it is easier to choose to have fresh, whole foods for meals and snacks. I’m a firm believer that the food environment you’re in directly influences your food choices– it’s not just about “willpower!” Not only was it easier to make healthy choices in Greece, but the quality of the ingredients was higher. Many of the vegetables and seafood were locally sourced (within the city!) and tasted very fresh. This made eating healthy not only easier but also very delicious!
How to Get Started with the Mediterranean Diet
While it is difficult to replicate the food environment in Greece, there are many ways to adjust your way of eating to align with a Mediterranean diet.
First, look at the meals you are currently eating and see where there may be opportunities to increase the amounts of vegetables, fruits, minimally processed whole grains, and lean proteins (like seafood) you’re eating. Meal planning is one of the keys to success for making dietary changes, so take some time to think through which foods you may be interested in substituting. Try to increase vegetables at every meal and reduce how often you are eating refined carbohydrates like white pasta, bread, pastries, and packaged snack foods like potato chips. For more tips with meal preparation, check out my article here!
You can also consider increasing the quality of the ingredients you use in your kitchen to help you enjoy Mediterranean diet foods. Here are some suggestions:
- Healthy fats are central to the heart-healthy benefits of the Mediterranean diet, so consider adding olives into your diet and cooking with extra-virgin olive oil that has been cold-pressed to maximize its nutrients, such as this one.
- Raw, unsalted nuts are another excellent source of healthy fats in the Mediterranean diet, so choose your preference between almonds, cashews, walnuts, or pistachios, as a few examples!
- High-quality balsamic vinegar for cooking like this one, which contains no added sugars.
- A full collection of organic spices to make the whole foods you’re preparing taste flavorful and delicious!
- Minimally processed whole grains, like lentils, bulgur (similar to rice!), buckwheat noodles (a great substitute for white pasta), and quinoa
- Snag some cookbooks for Mediterranean diet recipes, such as the 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet Cookbook or the Complete Mediterranean Cookbook
In addition, there are delivery services that offer high-quality, organic fresh foods to help you cook in the style of the Mediterranean diet. One of my favorite online services for wild-caught seafood is Vital Choice. Their seafood is all sustainably caught, and they are B corporation certified, meaning that they adhere to the highest standards for minimizing negative environmental practices– no pesticides here! Take a look at their selection and don’t skip that wild-caught Alaskan salmon!
Dr. Schulte’s Summary
The Mediterranean diet is built on a foundation of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, minimally processed whole grains, and lean proteins like seafood. It has long been identified in the research as a nutritious way of eating that can prevent heart disease and aid in weight management. My 10-day experience following the Mediterranean diet while in Greece illuminated the benefits of eating simply prepared whole foods, such as feeling satisfied by the healthy foods I ate and staying full for hours between meals. I encourage you to find opportunities to include vegetables at every meal and reduce how often you eat refined carbohydrates like white pasta and bread. I hope you feel inspired to make a few small changes today!
Do you follow a Mediterranean diet? I’d love to hear about your experiences or answer any questions you have. Drop a comment below!
Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., Covas, M. I., Corella, D., Arós, F., … & Martínez-González, M. A. (2013). Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. New England Journal of Medicine, 368(14), 1279-1290.
Sofi, F., Cesari, F., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., & Casini, A. (2008). Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. Bmj, 337.
Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.