I want to tell you about the diet that I believe is the absolute best and that my husband and I follow on a daily basis. I consider the Mediterranean diet to be the most research-supported diet out there for nearly everyone. I believe that this is because it is highly anti-inflammatory, and inflammation is a root cause of many (if not most) of our chronic health problems. Below is a list of conditions and situations that show research-supported benefits of a Mediterranean Diet:
Non-alcoholic fatty liver
Typing "anti-inflammatory diet" into Google won't get you very far, unfortunately, because there is so much conflicting information out there about what an anti-inflammatory diet actually looks like. I'm here to clear up the confusion and provide some practical guidelines and tips, using the Mediterranean diet as my anti-inflammatory diet of choice.
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Research studies vary slightly about the specifics of the Mediterranean diet, but I’ll break it down for you below.
Olive oil galore!
I use olive oil in all of my cooking and drizzle it over a lot of foods (roasted vegetables, salads, whole grain pasta, etc.). Other fat sources like fried foods, margarine, butter, cream, and soybean oil are a part of our diet only about once per week. In fact, I pretty much never buy any of the foods I just listed, including butter! We have them on special occasions... or when we’re craving Girl Scout cookies. ;)
My husband, Jeremy, is a big fan of butter, though (Who isn't?), and he missed the taste of it. So we’ve started using butter-infused olive oil in foods that really need that buttery taste. It's amazing! I buy it at our local olive oil store called Heavenly Oils, but if you don’t have a store like this near you, you can also find it on Amazon. It is a little pricey, however, so we use regular extra virgin olive oil from Aldi in most foods and save the butter-infused oil for foods that really need a buttery taste (popcorn!). This goes a long way towards helping us stay on our food budget, because olive oil is a pillar of our diet!
1 serving per day
It doesn’t matter what kind of nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, etc.), but we avoid those with added sugar for the most part. A serving is ¼ cup and Jeremy and I eat this amount pretty much every day, rain or shine. We actually keep the measuring cup in or on the container to help us eat the right amount!
The type of fat in nuts is very anti-inflammatory and beneficial, but too much can actually compete with other types of healthy fats in the body! This is why I'm careful to not have any more or less than one serving per day. Nut butters also count, but the serving size for these is just 2 tablespoons because they're essentially more "packed in". Limiting our portion to ¼ cup per day is also crucial for staying on budget since nuts are one of the pricier foods in our diet. We buy them at Aldi because they are much less expensive there (surprise!) and come in different varieties. The deluxe mixed nuts are our favorite.
2-3 servings (different kinds) per day
A whole medium fruit or one cup of cut-up fruit counts as one serving. Fresh, frozen, or canned fruit in its own juice are all fine, but we’ve found that fresh fruit is usually the least expensive (and yummiest). Dried fruit counts too, but serving sizes are smaller - only ¼ cup. Some researchers disagree with me, but in my opinion and in my daily life, fruit juice does not count. I only drink it as a treat.
The best two ways to save in this category are to shop sales and eat everything you buy! I cannot emphasize this enough. Every week, I look at Aldi’s weekly deals along with the ads for any other grocery stores where I shop and then plan my fruit purchases around them.
We typically don’t keep fruit in the crisper drawer because, as I like to say, “That’s where fruits and vegetables go to die.”
We keep them on the top/middle shelves of the fridge or on the counter where we’ll see them often (for fruits that can be stored at room temperature).
What you see is what you eat!
3+ servings (different kinds) per day
A combination of raw and cooked vegetables is ideal. Canned and frozen are fine. White-fleshed potatoes don't count as a vegetable, but fall into the "20%" category of my 80/20 rule. Every other kind of vegetable is packed full of nutrients whether cooked or raw.
Some nutrients (lycopene in tomatoes, for example) are amplified by cooking and others (vitamin C in broccoli, for example) are diminished or even destroyed by cooking.
For this reason, we strive for a healthy balance between raw and cooked vegetables.
We have a side salad with dinner almost every day and love making roasted vegetables (especially when it's cold out) to round out our meals. Just like the fruit category, I also shop sales for vegetables and plan ahead to make sure we consume all of the ones we buy. No food is more expensive than a food that goes bad and ends up being thrown away!
3+ servings per week (1/2 cup = svg.)
This is the most difficult one for us because Jeremy is not a fan of beans and I'm a huge fan. We compromise by having chili with beans and tacos with beans regularly. These are two of Jeremy's favorite meals, so it works for us! If I'm craving beans, but chili or tacos aren't coming up on the weekly menu, I sometimes have a can black beans with salsa and cheese on top for a quick lunch.
Peas, and lentils count, too, by the way. If you're looking for some fantastic ways to add more beans to your diet, check out pulses.org. It's a fantastic resource for recipes and even has a fun little free challenge you can join!
As weird as this sounds, the gas that follows when you consume beans is essentially your gut bacteria saying, "Thank you." Beans are the best natural dietary source of fiber, which as I mentioned earlier, is crucial for a healthy gut. When the healthy bacteria in your gut digest the extra fiber from beans, gas is produced as a by-product - a good sign! Interestingly, if you incorporate beans into your diet on a regular basis, the gas actually tends to subside over time as your body adjusts to having extra fiber regularly (no pun intended).
2-3+ servings of fatty fish per week (3-4 oz. = svg.)
Tuna and salmon (especially salmon) are my fatty fish of choice because they are very high in omega 3 fats, which I believe provide many of the health benefits of fish (salmon is higher than tuna). I avoid albacore tuna because it contains high levels of mercury. Tilapia, cod, shrimp, and other types of fish don’t count for us because they don't have a very significant amount of omega 3s. These types of fish are totally fine, but they simply count as a lean protein in my book (like chicken).
This can be one of the most expensive categories for healthy eating or one of the least expensive, depending on what you buy! We save several dollars every week just by buying canned salmon instead of salmon fillets. We like to use these to make teriyaki salmon cakes, salmon noodle casserole (substitute salmon for the tuna and use whole wheat egg noodles), and salmon salad (canned salmon + light mayo + sweet relish).
1 or more servings per day (6-8 oz. = serving)
Kefir is my go-to for this category because it is richer in probiotics than yogurt. It tastes like a slightly tangier version of yogurt that you drink in a glass. Kefir is our daily source of probiotics, because these are good for optimal gut health. The gut is the home of trillions of bacteria, some bad and some good, which are largely responsible for our immune system as well as other key functions.
Kefir > source of probiotics > good for the gut > key player in inflammation
Jeremy and I drink about 8 ounces almost every morning. This is the primary source of probiotics in our diet. The Mediterranean diet also isn’t afraid of a little cheese, which is also a fermented dairy product but not a good source of probiotics. We have hard, aged cheese - not Velveeta, cottage cheese, or cream cheese, which are highly processed - a few times per week, but not daily.
2+ servings per day, and always in place of refined grains
I eat 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, 100% whole wheat pasta, 100% whole grain crackers, and oatmeal (my favorite whole grain food - especially if it's baked oatmeal!) on a regular basis. Non-whole grain or white bread, pasta, crackers, and rice are treats that fall into the 20% of my 80/20.
Grains have gotten a bad reputation in recent years, but whole grains are actually excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which is a hugely underappreciated element of a healthy diet.
Eating adequate fiber on the daily is absolutely crucial for having a healthy gut - even more so than consuming probiotics!
max 3 servings per week (includes beef, pork, lamb)
We focus on salmon, chicken, turkey, beans, kefir, and eggs (to a lesser extent) as our main protein sources. We eat red meat once or twice per week on average. This frequency is fine, but I wouldn’t recommend having red meat more often than this due to it being a fairly inflammatory food. The Mediterranean diet doesn’t put a huge emphasis on animal protein in general, besides fish and poultry. It's considered a mostly plant-based diet, which you may have heard a lot about lately in the news! An expert panel of nutritionists recruited by US News ranked the Mediterranean Diet as the best diet overall and the best plant-based diet for 2018!
Small portions throughout the week (not daily)
I've briefly mentioned the 80/20 rule at other places on the blog, but this is where the 20% really comes in for me. I have a major sweet tooth! Cookies, ice cream, cake, donuts, pastries, and pie are some of my favorite foods. BUT they are a treat, not a daily necessity. My philosophy is that small quantities of added sugar are not going to have a huge impact on our health, but the key is to keep them small.
When I’m craving cookies, I have one or two. As long as these types of "treat" foods don’t make up more than a small proportion of someone’s diet, I believe that it’s really not a big deal for health.
Allowing yourself to regularly have small treats like this can actually make sticking to a healthy eating pattern much more sustainable over the long haul, because I don't feel deprived all the time or guilty for "going off the plan".
For me, this philosophy helps keep me on track with eating well and I don’t feel deprived since all foods “fit” into my healthy eating pattern. I don’t have to say no to a piece of birthday cake or a delicious gourmet cupcake in the break room at work - I let myself have one small or medium-sized serving of the treat (not just one bite - sheesh!) and then move on.
One cupcake - or even one birthday meal - absolutely does not derail a healthy diet or make that day a failure as long as it’s only about 20% of my overall eating pattern.
Less than 1 per day
Sweetened beverages are a "20%" treat just like sweetened foods. I probably drink something sweet once per month at most. As a side note, the Mediterranean diet has nothing to say—either positive or negative—about artificial sweeteners. I don’t personally rely on them heavily or recommend them in large quantities, as they may trigger a craving for other sweets!
Up to 1 glass of red wine daily (1 glass = 5 oz.)
I don’t particularly love wine and Jeremy doesn't drink any alcohol so this isn’t one that we make any effort to follow closely, but it is definitely a component of the Mediterranean diet. Other beverages encouraged in the Mediterranean diet include water (lots of it!) and green tea. Water, kefir, and tea are the only things Jeremy and I drink on a daily basis.
Below are links to a few scientific articles that have either defined the components of the Mediterranean Diet or convinced me that a Mediterranean Diet is the way to go. Here they are, those who are interested in checking them out:
A 14-Item Mediterranean Diet Assessment Tool and Obesity Indexes among High-Risk Subjects: The PREDIMED Trial (This article is about a checklist used in research studies to determine how closely study participants followed a Mediterranean Diet.)
Overall eating pattern
My final note is this: the Mediterranean diet is an overall anti-inflammatory eating pattern.
There isn’t one magic food in the Mediterranean diet that can provide nearly as much benefit by itself as all of the components of the diet working together.
This is why I believe in the 80/20 rule. As long as the majority of the diet fits a Mediterranean diet pattern (or a different healthy eating pattern!), there is room for some purely “fun foods” in the margins. Health is all about balance - and that includes a balance between foods that nourish the body and ones that don't nourish the body but simply bring us joy!
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Let's talk! What are your favorite components of the Mediterranean diet? Which component is the hardest for you to include in your diet on a regular basis?
Thanks for reading!