Some Facts About the Mediterranean Diet

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When someone says the “Mediterranean Diet” often our thoughts immediately go to pizza, pasta, and all things Italian, but a true Mediterranean Diet consists mainly of fruits and vegetables, seafood, olive oil, hearty grains, and other foods that fight against heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and cognitive decline.

During a study tour of Southern Italy last fall, I got to witness first hand the amount and variety of fresh vegetables available at every meal. Olive oil is drizzled on almost everything, and olives every day are a must for their beautiful skin and hair! Making dietary changes is never easy, but this diet can be inexpensive and a satisfying and very healthy way to eat! For additional information on the Mediterranean Diet, or the “Med Instead of Meds” Program contact Kelly Tyndall at the Lenoir or Jones County of Cooperative Extension, 252-527-2191 or 252-448-9621.

Health Benefits

The traditional Mediterranean diet consists of large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil. This diet combined with physical activity can reduce your risk of physical and mental health issues by

  •  Protecting against type 2 diabetes. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, which digests slowly, prevents huge swings in blood sugar, and can help you maintain a healthy weight.
  • Preventing heart disease and strokes. Following a Mediterranean diet limits your intake of refined breads, processed foods, and red meat, and encourages drinking red wine instead of hard liquor—all factors that can help prevent heart disease and stroke.
  •  Keeping you agile. If you’re an older adult, the nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about 70 percent.
  • Reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet may improve cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and overall blood vessel health, which in turn may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
  •  Halving the risk of Parkinson’s disease. The high levels of antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet can prevent cells from undergoing a damaging process called oxidative stress, thereby cutting the risk of Parkinson’s disease in half.
  •  Increasing longevity. By reducing your risk of developing heart disease or cancer with the Mediterranean diet, you’re reducing your risk of death at any age by 20%.

What to Eat

  • Eat lots of vegetables. Try a simple plate of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese, or load your thin crust pizza with peppers and mushrooms instead of sausage and pepperoni. Salads, soups, and veggie platters are also great ways to load up on vegetables.
  • Always eat breakfast. Fruit, whole grains, and other fiber-rich foods are a great way to start your day, keeping you pleasantly full for hours.
  • Eat seafood twice a week. Fish such as tuna, salmon, herring, sablefish (black cod), and sardines are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.
  • Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. If it’s helpful, you can jump on the “Meatless Mondays” trend of foregoing meat on the first day of the week, or simply pick a day where you build meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Once you get the hang of it, try two nights a week.
  • Use good fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados are great sources of healthy fats for your daily meals.
  •  Enjoy dairy products in moderation. The USDA recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 10% of your daily calories (about 200 calories for most people). That still allows you to enjoy dairy products such as natural (unprocessed) cheese, Greek or plain yogurt.
  •  For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Instead of ice cream, cake or other baked goods, opt for strawberries, fresh figs, grapes, or apples.

Here are some simple easy recipes to give you a kick start;

Greek Style Tailgate Salad


  • 2 cups uncooked whole grain rice
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • ¾ cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed without oil
  • 1½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 8 cups bagged prewashed spinach (about 8 ounces)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) reduced-fat feta cheese, crumbled
  • ¼ cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (15½-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • 10 lemon wedges (optional) Step 1


  1. Cook rice according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Cool to room temperature; set aside.
  2. Combine boiling water and sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl; let stand 30 minutes or until soft. Drain and cut into 1-inch pieces.
  3. Heat 1½ teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add spinach and garlic; sauté 3 minutes or until spinach wilts. Combine rice, tomatoes, spinach mixture, cheese, and next 5 ingredients (through chickpeas). Drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon oil; toss gently to coat.
  4. Sprinkle with nuts; serve with lemon wedges, if desired.

Serves 10. Each serving contains Calories 288, Fat 9.5g, Protein 10g, Carbohydrate 41g, Fiber 4g, Cholesterol 8mg, Sodium 713mg.

Mixed Bean Salad


For the Vinaigrette

  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • ⅓ cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the Bean mixture

  • 1 can (15 ounces) garbanzos, rinsed and drained
  • 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 6 lettuce leaves
  • ½ cup celery, finely chopped


  1. To make the vinaigrette, in a small bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, parsley, garlic and pepper. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil. Set aside.
  2. For the beans, in a large bowl, combine the beans and onion. Pour the vinaigrette over the mixture and toss gently to mix well and coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate until served.
  3. To serve, put 1 lettuce leaf on each plate. Divide the salad among the individual plates and garnish with chopped celery. Serve immediately.

Serves 6. Each serving contains Calories 218, Fat 10g, Protein 7g, Carbohydrate 25g, Fiber 6g, Cholesterol 0mg, Sodium 170mg.

Mediterranean Style Grilled Salmon


  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 salmon fillets, each 5 ounces
  • Cracked black pepper, to taste
  • 4 green olives, chopped
  • 4 thin slices lemon
  • Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill or broiler. Away from the heat source, lightly coat the grill rack or broiler pan with cooking spray. Position the cooking rack 4 to 6 inches from the heat source.


  1. In a small bowl, combine the basil, parsley, minced garlic and lemon juice. Spray the fish with cooking spray. Sprinkle with black pepper. Top each fillet with equal amounts of the herb-garlic mixture. Place the fish herb-side down on the grill. Grill over high heat. When the edges turn white, after about 3 to 4 minutes, turn the fish over and place on aluminum foil. Move the fish to a cooler part of the grill or reduce the heat. Grill until the fish is opaque throughout when tested with the tip of a knife and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the fish reads 145 F (about 4 minutes longer).
  2. Remove the salmon and place on warmed plates. Garnish with green olives and lemon slices.

Serves 4. Each serving contains Calories 214, Fat 10g, Protein 28g, Carbohydrate 3g, Fiber 1g, Cholesterol 78mg, Sodium 143mg.

Mediterranean Tuna


  • 2 cans (6 oz. ea.) tuna, drained and flaked
  • ¼ cup Hellmann’s® or Best Foods® Mayonnaise Dressing with Olive Oil
  • ¼ cup chopped pitted ripe olives
  • ¼ cup drained and chopped roasted red peppers
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon small capers, rinsed and drained
  • 6 slices whole wheat bread


  • Combine all ingredients except bread in medium bowl. Arrange, if desired, on greens and serve with bread.

Serves 6. Each serving contains Calories 190, Fat 6g, Protein 18g, Carbohydrate 13g, Fiber 2g, Cholesterol 20mg, Sodium 540mg.