What is the Mediterranean Diet? A Beginner's Guide

What is the Mediterranean Diet? A Beginner's Guide

Marnie Nitschke, dietitian and Cockatoo Grove Ambassador with the good oil on why the the Mediterranean way of eating is so good for us and how you can easily bring elements of this into your family meals.

With all the health and dietary information we’re expected to absorb these days, straight talking and practical nutrition advice never goes astray.  So let’s dive into the Mediterranean diet.

Quite simply, the Mediterranean Diet is a way of traditional eating, followed in countries that border the Mediterranean sea, such as Italy, Greece, France, Spain and Morocco. 

Let's look at the foods, preparation methods and cooking that make the Mediterranean diet unique (hint, olive oil is a big part of it).

But wait! Why are we hearing so much about the Mediterranean Diet and what are the benefits?

Well we are probably hearing a lot about it because the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle is now one of the most studied dietary patterns in the world – and for good reason.  Scientists noticed that in the Mediterranean (and other so-called ‘blue zones’ of the world), people were living significantly longer, happier and healthier lives.  So they studied their diet and lifestyle. A lot.

We now have excellent evidence that following a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle:

  • Reduces your risk of developing heart disease, having a stroke and developing type 2 diabetes
  • Helps diabetics to manage blood sugar levels better
  • Can improve depression and delay the development of age-related cognitive diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s

Pretty impressive right?  So let’s dig a little deeper into at what this way of eating actually entails.

One of the most important distinctions of the Mediterranean way of eating is the abundance of plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, olive oil and legumes (beans, peas and lentils). 

mediterranean lunch bowl

This is not a carb-fearing society! Imagine a rainbow of different coloured fruit and veg like leafy greens, tomatoes, sweet potato, berries and grapes.  These vibrant colours are markers for antioxidants, which you can think of as tiny wellness warriors that reverse the damage our DNA that leads to aging and cancer.  These plant foods also give us plenty of dietary fibre and prebiotics (food for our good gut bacteria).  

Seafood is another star of the Mediterranean diet

... after all, these countries are surrounded by sea.  Regular protein sources also include eggs, poultry and moderate amounts of full fat dairy products – particularly fermented versions like yogurt, kefir and cheese.  Red meat? This is eaten more occasionally – maybe a few times per month. 

salmon baked in olive oil with citrus and herbs

Highly processed foods and sweets - not so much.

Cookies, cakes and refined breakfast cereals don’t really feature in the traditional Mediterranean diet.  It’s not that they don’t eat sugar, but more common sources are honey, fresh and dried fruits like dates, raisins, prunes and figs.

close up of several figs cut in half and quarters

Wine (we think you’ll like this bit).

Daily wine consumption (1-2 glasses) is part and parcel of life for many people in the Mediterranean – which is thought to contribute health benefits.  The key here appears to be the high antioxidant content of red wine, and the nature in which it’s consumed – in moderation and with meals.

Let’s not forget the ‘lifestyle’ part of this whole equation.

Regular physical activity (say, 2 1⁄2 hours per week), and getting enough rest are important contributors to health and longer lifespan in the Mediterranean. Not to mention strong family and community networks, which lower stress levels and foster greater social cohesion.

And finally, a look at Mediterranean cooking practices. 

Planning, preparing and enjoying food together is a big part of life in these countries. Importantly, cooking in these regions involves liberal amounts of quality olive oil.  Mediterraneans don’t just grill, roast and fry with olive oil.  They drizzle it liberally on just about anything AND dip their bread into it.  Although such generous use of oil can seem unhealthy to us non-Mediterraneans, the benefits of embracing olive oil in these ways are now well understood.

  • Extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat, as well as antioxidants such as vitamin E and a variety of phenolic compounds – all which are great for our cholesterol levels, heart and circulation system.
  • Olive oil is also a flavour carrier – making meals tastier and more satiating.
  • Cooking with olive oil can even enhance the bioavailability of nutrients in other food. Grilling, sautéing or roasting vegetables with olive oil actually increases the absorption and potency of the powerful antioxidants they contain.
Here’s 10 simple, achievable strategies to incorporate healthy Mediterranean habits into your life.
  1. Incorporate vegetarian meals, including plant protein sources like beans and lentils into your weekly menu.
  2. Cook with whole grains like barley, oats, brown rice, quinoa, freekah and include grainy (rather than white) bread.
  3. Eat both raw and cooked vegetables – a rainbow of colours every day.hummus and vegetable bowl
  4. Eat fresh and dried fruits daily – as part of snacks, desserts and main meals.
  5. Incorporate nuts into your daily menu – the more variety the better.
  6. Aim for at least two fish or seafood meals per week – preferably oily types of fish like sardines, salmon, herring, maceral and tuna.
  7. Flavour dishes with lots of fresh and dried herbs and spices (rather than with too much salt).
  8. Use extra virgin olive oil liberally, instead of cheaper, blended olive or vegetable oils, and saturated fats like butter, palm or coconut oil.eggplant grain salad
  9. Try to be active most days, moving your body in ways you enjoy.
  10. Plan, prepare and enjoy your meals with family and friends whenever possible (including a glass or two of wine!).


Here's a bit about Marnie ...