You’ve probably heard that a plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet is a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your nutrition. But maybe you’re a little unsure about what that means and what you should actually buy.
“One of the basics of the Mediterranean diet is to prepare meals from good, whole foods and then take the time to sit down and really enjoy it,” said Bonnie Buckingham, a dietitian at Samaritan Weight Management Institute. “You want to buy food that is in a relatively natural state and spend less time looking at nutrition labels.” Buckingham offers insights to help transform your shopping cart.
Key Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet
Healthy FatsAccording to Buckingham, the Mediterranean diet stays away from saturated fats like meat and butter, and replaces it with healthy monounsaturated fats. Olive oil and nuts have diverse amounts of fatty acids that can lower the risk of heart disease, lower LDL “lousy” cholesterol and maintain HDL “healthy” cholesterol.
Local Fruits & VegetablesFoods that are grown locally don’t have to travel as far, which means they can be picked at peak freshness for maximum nutrition. Buckingham recommends shopping in season when possible, and looking for produce that is grown locally. Farmers’ markets are a good bet, and many grocery stores also feature local produce. Buckingham recommends seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. It sounds like a lot but she notes that meals are mostly plant-based, so you’ll find you have more room for vegetables if you aren’t filling up on meat.
Whole GrainsInstead of depending on bread and crackers, Buckingham recommends buying grains that look as they would if they were just harvested — for instance a bag of brown rice instead of rice noodles. If you want to slowly incorporate new grains into your diet, consider mixing them with something familiar. Quinoa and farro are two ancient grains that are easy to find and prepare. Quinoa has a fluffy texture and can be cooked with rice. Farro is slightly firm and chewy, and cooks nicely with steel cut oats in the morning.
Fatty FishNatives of the Mediterranean region rely a lot on seafood. You can copy that by choosing fatty fish like salmon, canned tuna and mackerel two or three times a week. Although fish is a big part of the Mediterranean diet, Buckingham notes it is not eaten every day. Poultry is typically consumed around three to four times per week and red meat is usually enjoyed only once or twice a month.
Low-fat DairyReplace sour cream and ranch dip with low-fat alternatives. Buckingham recommends tzatziki, a Greek yogurt-based dip instead of sour cream. Add seasonings like dill, cucumber and tomato for zesty flavor in a delicious and low-fat dip. As an added bonus, you get beneficial probiotics from the yogurt. You can also try a commercially prepared tofu replacement.
BeansDried beans like chickpeas, lentils and split peas are good staples to have on hand. They have a long shelf life and add healthy fiber to any meal. Buckingham notes that along with fish, beans and nuts provide the majority of protein in the Mediterranean diet. If you struggle with cutting out meat, start with one meal a week that is meat-free, but make sure to load up on veggies, whole grains and of course, beans.
Buckingham encourages people to eat Mediterranean without being too caught up in “dos” and “don’ts."
“Don’t focus on cutting things out but just shift the proportions of food that you eat to vegetables and whole grains. Experience the sensation of tasting your food. Enjoy an occasional glass of red wine. Enjoy an occasional dessert,” said Buckingham. “With the Mediterranean diet, the main point is to find pleasure out of eating fresh foods.”
Top Foods to Add to Your Grocery List
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts
- Whole grains: quinoa, farro
- Beans: chickpeas, lentils, split peas, cannellini
- Dairy: tzatziki, feta, Romano, low-fat yogurt
- Fish: salmon, tuna, mackerel
- Meat: chicken breast, shrimp
- Vegetables: cucumber, onion, garlic, tomato, zucchini, spinach, eggplant, kale, mushrooms, olives
- Fruit (seasonal)
- Lemon and lime
- Fresh herbs: oregano, dill, mint, basil, parsley, za’atar
- Red wine (optional)
Enjoy the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet with a recipe for Greek Chicken Penne.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet shares many characteristics with the Mediterranean Diet. Learn more about it.