What is the Mediterranean diet?

This diet is the core of a healthy lifestyle, which preserves the nutritional value of food, follows local recipes, traditions and, unlike fast food and processed food, protects the body against cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and degenerative diseases.

Foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet favours whole or low refined grains, fruit, vegetables, and dried and oleaginous fruits. Fish is also popular, often used instead of eggs, dairy and processed products. When it comes to meat, poultry is favoured over red meat, which is eaten only once a week.

The spices used are one of the secrets to Mediterranean cooking: onion, garlic, aromatic herbs, as an alternative to salt, and olive oil, which is the preferred choice for cooking and seasoning. Meals are accompanied mainly by water and, occasionally, by wine, although this particular nectar should be consumed in moderation.

Those who have never tried fish soup, mixed paella, Portuguese cabbage risotto with pumpkin or bacalhau no pão (cod served in rustic bread), do not know what they are missing.

The Mediterranean diet pyramid

At the bottom of the pyramid we see water and infusions, physical activity, food diversity and seasonal produce.

One step above, you can find fruits and vegetables. One to two fruits per meal are recommended, contributing to the daily goal of 3 to 5 portions. When it comes to vegetables, the recommended number is 4 daily portions, which means roughly two vegetable portions per main meal (lunch and dinner).

Mediterranean Diet pyramid

In this level you can also find wholegrain cereals and carbs like rice, pasta, bread, couscous – that must be consumed in one or two portions per main meal – and olive oil, the main source of fat in the Mediterranean diet.

Another step up and we get two the fat-rich foods that are good for you: olives, nuts and seeds. One or two portions a day keep the doctor away – remember these are the good, healthy fats. Still here you can find herbs and spices: these, as you know, are essential on a tasty table. You can (and should!) use herbs and spices as a substitute for salt.

Going towards the top in the Mediterranean diet food pyramid, we run into dairy products. You should give preference to skimmed dairy products, or reduced fat, and these should be consumed twice a day.

The Mediterranean diet food pyramid recommends the weekly consumption of two portions of white meat, 2 to 4 eggs, and at least 2 portions of fish and legumes.

Potatoes are way up, almost at the top of the Mediterranean pyramid, with up to three weekly portions – due to its large glycaemic index. Processed and red meats should also be kept under the one- and two-portions a week marks, respectively.

At the very top of the pyramid we find sweets, which are normally sugar- and fat rich. As such, cakes, biscuits, candy, sugar loaded drinks and white sugar should be kept for special occasions only and enjoyed in small portions.

The Mediterranean diet’s 10 commandments

Although the Mediterranean diet is not at all a religion, there are 10 principles to go by:

  1. Simple cooking that protects nutrients, like soups, fish soups and stews;
  2. High vegetable consumption;
  3. Fresh, seasonal and locally sourced products;
  4. Olive oil as the main source of fat;
  5. Moderate dairy consumption;
  6. Herbs as a preferred seasoning, reducing the use of salt;
  7. Frequent fish consumption, sporadic red meat consumption;
  8. Low to moderate wine consumption, and only in main meals (lunch and dinner);
  9. Water as the main beverage throughout the day;
  10. Daily family and friendship bonding, around the lunch and dinner tables.
Table setup with grilled fish and salad.

What’s the importance of the Mediterranean diet?

What is so special about the Mediterranean diet? This diet became popular in the 1950s after American researcher and philosopher Ancel Keys first discovered that the Mediterranean peoples had less heart attacks compared to people in other parts of the world. One thing led to another and Keys was able to pin together the common factor in all these countries – their diet, specifically, the Mediterranean diet.

More than a diet, it’s a way of life

Did you know that the word “diet” comes from the Greek word “diaita” and actually means “way of life”? The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle, a way of living. Besides the food, this diet includes certain habits that contribute greatly to good health and longevity, such as: the preference for locally-grown seasonal products, contributing to a sustainable cycle; the bonding with family and friends during meals and their preparation, which strengthens social interactions, improves well-being and promotes happiness; and eating in moderation.

Apart from that, exercise, physical activity, and correct hydration are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. Clearly, it is more than a diet.

Healthier and more balanced

Many scientific studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet plays a key role when it comes to longevity and the reduced risk of several diseases. It is, thereby, considered one of the healthiest diets in the entire world.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Mediterranean diet can be linked to a better quality of life, especially in terms of mental health, weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight, and in the reduction of risk factors for non-transmissible chronic diseases, dementia and cognitive impairment, atherosclerosis, strokes and fatal coronary problems, among many others.

Intangible Cultural World Heritage

The unmatched success of the Mediterranean diet caused it to be recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, in 2013. This diet is not only healthy but also cultural and historical and should be treasured and passed to younger generations as a powerful cultural legacy.