How to Eat a Healthy, Plant-Based Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet pattern is widely considered one of the healthiest eating styles on the planet. Over half a century ago, researchers began observing that people who lived around the Mediterranean Sea in a diverse range of countries and lifestyles had a couple of things in common: They tended to have similar eating patterns, and they also had less risk of heart disease and a longer lifespan. Thus, the science on the Mediterranean diet—rich in whole plant foods—sprang to life, and ever since then research has supported the numerous benefits of eating this way. No matter what your eating style—omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan—you can take on a more Mediterranean-style diet for health benefits. One of the things that I love best is how downright delicious this way of eating is, thanks to the addition of healthy fats, spices, and seasonal produce. I’ve enjoyed eating in many Mediterranean regions of the world, which has significantly influenced my style of cooking and eating.
That’s why I sat down with Mediterranean nutrition expert and dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD to get her best advice on how you can eat a healthy, plant-based Mediterranean diet.
How to Eat a Healthy, Plant-Based Mediterranean Diet
Sharon: What is your personal cultural food tradition and eating style?
Rahaf: I am originally from Syria, a beautiful Mediterranean country located in the Middle East. I was exposed to the Syrian culture and cuisine from an early age. My mom cooks traditional meals and encourages me to learn her ‘secrets’ for preparing delicious Syrian foods. Some of the more well-known Syrian foods are common to other Middle Eastern countries, which include hummus, baba ghanouj (eggplant dip), falafel, fattoush, tabbouleh, and shawarma. There are many other ethnic meals such as mahashee (stuffed zucchini in a tomato based sauce), and freekeh (whole grain pilaf). The Mediterranean diet includes plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, olives, and legumes; these foods are the core of the Syrian cuisine and are eaten daily. Other common ingredients are pita bread, labneh (strained yogurt), tahini (sesame seed paste), pomegranate syrup, and zaatar (a thyme spice). The Mediterranean diet is more than just foods to eat. It is a lifestyle that encourages eating with friends and family, socializing over meals, and mindfully eating your favorite foods, including dessert! Syrians are known for their hospitality and love for sharing foods. The Mediterranean diet also encourages mindful movement and exercise for a healthy lifestyle.
Sharon: What are the main benefits of eating a Mediterranean Diet?
Rahaf: There are many health benefits to the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, cognitive decline, and overall mortality (1, 2). These health benefits are attributed to the overall interactions of the different components of the Mediterranean diet, rather than just one specific food (1). One of the key nutrients in the Mediterranean diet is the type of fat recommended. The Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil and fish, and discourages saturated and trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease. The diet is also high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber; key components for reducing the risk for chronic diseases.
Sharon: How is a Mediterranean diet also a plant-based diet?
Rahaf: The Mediterranean diet is a predominantly plant-based diet. It emphasizes plenty of vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices. Dairy, fish and poultry are consumed a few times a week whereas red meat and processed meat is limited and eaten in small quantities.
Sharon: What are some key foods in a Mediterranean Diet?
Rahaf: Some key foods in the Mediterranean diet are olives, chickpeas, artichokes, pomegranates, figs, couscous, freekeh, eggplants, pistachios, yogurt, fish, and olive oil.
Sharon: How can you adapt the Mediterranean Diet principles to your diet, no matter where you live?
Rahaf: You can follow a Mediterranean lifestyle no matter where you live and adapt it to your cultural and religious customs. For example, there are some Mediterranean countries that include wine in their diet, but others do not due to religious reasons, such as Islam. It is interesting to note that the Mediterranean region spans 18 countries and although each country has different dishes and recipes, they all share a similar Mediterranean eating pattern. When planning meals focus on including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, olive oil, and nuts in meals. For example, is there a meal where you can add more vegetables to? Could you substitute processed and red meat with beans and chickpeas more often? The Mediterranean diet is also a lifestyle that encourages physical activity and social connectedness. Mindfully eating and enjoying your foods with friends and family is a key component to following the Mediterranean diet.
Sharon: If you eat a plant-based diet, including vegetarian and vegan diets, how can you make it more Mediterranean?
Rahaf: Here are some tips to make your diet more Mediterranean.
- Switch to using olive oil as your main fat.
- Use virgin olive oil to sauté and roast vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on salads and dips.
- Use fresh herbs to add flavor to your meals. Experiment with oregano, mint, or thyme in your next recipe.
- Choose whole grains such has whole wheat flour, oats, barley, freekeh, couscous, and quinoa.
- Add nuts and seeds to a salad or snack.
- Add more vegetables and fruits to your diet.
- Make vegetables the center of your meals and choose fruit for snacks or dessert.
Sharon: Please share some of your favorite Mediterranean foods that you eat every day.
Rahaf: Some of my favorite Mediterranean foods that I eat on most days are olives, pomegranates (when in season), dried figs, apricots, and dates, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, fresh mint, labneh, olive oil and zaatar spice.
Here is one of Rahaf’s favorite recipes:
Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition LLC in Duluth, GA. She provides holistic nutrition counseling and corporate wellness services with a focus on intuitive eating, diabetes, and women’s health. Rahaf wants to help people develop a healthy relationship with food and encourages a Mediterranean-inspired lifestyle. As a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Rahaf shares evidence-based nutrition communications with media and consumers. Follow her blog at Olive Tree Nutrition for Mediterranean-inspired recipes and wellness tips. You can also find Rahaf on Instagram and Facebook.
1 The Mediterranean diet, it’s components, and cardiovascular disease. Widmer J. et al. accessed on November 26. https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(14)00913-9/fulltext
2 Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or nuts. Accessed on November 26. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1800389?query=featured_home
To read more about the Mediterranean Diet, check out some of my favorite blogs:
Main image: Farmers Market Pasta Salad, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN