What is the Mediterranean diet?

There is no single answer to this question. More than specific ingredients, the Mediterranean diet is more a set of principles that underpin eating habits. This is because the concept of the Mediterranean diet was applied to something that already existed — a unique way of looking at food and ultimately life, which, alongside eating habits, is closely related to the culture of a country. Allow us to explain.

The Mediterranean diet is, as the name suggests, a dietary pattern characteristic of Mediterranean countries, such as Spain. Although Portugal is a country bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, its similar characteristics, such as its climate, and its proximity to the “neighbouring” sea allow it to be considered a Mediterranean country – for example, Portugal follows the Mediterranean diet.

This diet follows age-old principles in food production, like respect for natural ingredients, and favours simple cooking methods. Fresh, seasonal, and local plant-based products sit at the core of the Mediterranean diet. These features come with a lot of health benefits: they contribute for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and degenerative diseases.

But why does the Mediterranean diet get so much attention?

In the 1950s, American physiologist, nutritionist, and public health scientist Ancel Keys conducted the famous “Seven Country Study”, which demonstrated how the peoples of seven countries located in the Mediterranean basin, such as Italy, Greece, and Japan, had fewer heart diseases and greater longevity compared to other parts of the world. What did they all have in common? Their eating habits included things like plant-based foods, fish, and olive oil. Their lifestyle was another factor—they engaged in physical exercise and viewed meals as moments of sharing and socializing. These traits coined the term Mediterranean diet.

The success of the Mediterranean diet even led UNESCO to declare it an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2013. It’s a cultural, historical, and healthy model to preserve and pass down as cultural heritage to future generations.

Did you know…

The Mediterranean diet has been considered the healthiest food regimen in the world since 2017.

There are 10 principles that make up the Mediterranean diet:

  • Simple cooking methods that preserve nutrients, such as soups, stews, and casseroles.
  • High consumption of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and pulses.
  • Preference for seasonal, fresh, and local products.
  • Olive oil as the primary source of fat.
  • Moderate consumption of dairy products.
  • Aromatic herbs as the preferred seasoning, reducing the use of salt.
  • Frequent consumption of fish and limited intake of red meats.
  • Low to moderate consumption of wine, only with main meals.
  • Water as the main beverage throughout the day.
  • Socializing and sharing meals at the table.
Table setup with grilled fish and salad.

What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet?

Did you know that the word “diet” comes from the Greek word “diaita,” which means “way of life”? The Mediterranean diet is also a lifestyle — beyond food, it includes certain habits that contribute to good health and longevity, such as a preference for local and seasonal products which in turn contributes to sustainability. Socializing during meals and meal preparation also plays an important role in an active social life, happiness, well-being, and moderation in eating.

Additionally, exercise and physical activity and regular water consumption are fundamental pillars of the Mediterranean diet. Here are some of its main benefits:

  • Reduces the risk of heart diseases and type 2 diabetes

    Given that the Mediterranean diet is rich in so-called “good” fats, such as monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, and includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish, it can help reduce the risk of heart diseases. Due to its high fibre content, low added sugars, and inclusion of low glycaemic index foods, it can also help prevent type 2 diabetes.

  • Promotes mental health and greater longevity

    Some studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet may be associated with better mental health, including a reduced risk of depression and age-related cognitive decline. Combined with nutrient rich foods that prevent the onset of certain diseases, it increases the likelihood that populations following a Mediterranean diet will have greater longevity.

  • Fights inflammation

    The Mediterranean diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and oleaginous fruits (such as walnuts), and fish with omega-3, which helps reduce body inflammation.

  • Promotes sustainable habits

    From production to consumption, this diet is based on fresh, local, and seasonal foods, which helps promote more sustainable eating practices and reduce its environmental impact.

Mediterranean diet: food list

The foods that constitute the Mediterranean diet can be represented in the form of a pyramid. At the base are the ingredients that should be consumed most frequently—such as water and infusions—as well as physical activity, food diversity, and seasonal products. As we move up the pyramid, we have:

  • Level 2: Fruits, vegetables, and grains.

    It is recommended to consume three to five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. Wholegrains such as rice, pasta or bread should be included, and olive oil should be the main source of fat.

  • Level 3: Foods rich in good fats.

    Such as olives, nuts and seeds. Spices and aromatic herbs (such as the bela-luz thyme) are also included, which can be great allies for replacing salt in different dishes.

  • Level 4: Dairy, fish, and white meats.

    Dairy products should preferably be lean and consumed twice or three times a day. Fish should be eaten more often (at least twice a week) compared to white meat and eggs. Legumes are also a good source of plant-based protein and can be incorporated into a variety of recipes.

  • Level 5: Potatoes and red meats.

    Due to their high glycaemic index, three servings or less of potato are recommended per week. Processed meats and red meats should not exceed one and two servings per week, respectively.

  • Top of the pyramid: Sweets.

    As they are typically high in sugar and fat, cakes, sweets, sugary drinks, and simple sugars should be reserved for special occasions and consumed in small quantities.

Mediterranean Diet pyramid

Draw inspiration from this list of Mediterranean diet recipes featuring characteristic ingredients, such as fish soup, Portuguese kale and pumpkin risotto, or cod in bread. Yummy!