Victoria Taylor is Senior Dietician at the British Heart Foundation, with over 18 years working in health and charity and a Master's Degree in Food Policy. Here, she explains the Mediterranean diet – how it works, how to follow it and what Mediterranean foods are. Plus, we've picked four of our favourite Mediterranean recipes to get you started – browse our best Mediterranean recipes for more inspiration.

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Expert explains: the Mediterranean diet

Don’t let the word ‘diet’ put you off: this is a genuinely delicious and nutritious way to eat. This eating plan focusses on some of your favourite summer holiday foods and bases meals around a style of cuisine rather than worrying about calories, supplements or cutting out food groups.

What are Mediterranean foods?

The diet gets its name as it’s high in foods traditionally eaten in many of the countries around the Mediterranean, including Italy, France, Spain and Greece. In general, it’s a primarily plant-based diet, with some fish, poultry and limited dairy. Plenty of seasonal fruit and veg, as well as beans, legumes and wholegrains, provide a tasty and highly nutritious base.

What sets it apart from other plant-based diets, which are typically low fat, is the inclusion of plenty of healthy fats – olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats. A moderate amount of alcohol (usually red wine) can also feature.

Mediterranean baked hake

How does the Mediterranean diet work?

It’s thought that the combination of these foods is the most important aspect of the diet, rather than any individual superfood. Its principles are broadly in line with healthy eating recommendations, so it’s little surprise that it finds favour with nutritionists and medics. At the same time, home-cooked dishes focussing on fresh, seasonal ingredients reduce the amount of processed foods (which have a tendency towards being high fat, high sugar and high salt) being consumed.

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Studies have shown that the Med diet may increase longevity and reduce the risk of conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It’s often recommended as a heart healthy diet, as these are all risk factors for heart disease. As it has also been associated with a reduced risk of dementia, many also suggest it’s a brain healthy eating plan. Although it’s not primarily a weight-loss diet, research indicates that people eating a Mediterranean diet are less likely to put on weight, which, of course, can also be beneficial to general health.

Goat's Cheese Stuffed Peppers Recipe with Olives

How do you follow the Mediterranean diet?

If you enjoy cooking your own food and follow a generally nourishing diet, it shouldn’t be too tricky to follow a Med diet without requiring great changes. Simply upping the amount of vegetarian dishes you make and swapping out some meat for fish will be a great start. Next, use olive oil (especially extra-virgin) in place of butter or margarine or cooking oil wherever possible. Add nuts, seeds, herbs and an extra portion of vegetables to your meals, or pop a big mixed salad on the table. Use wholegrain wheat, rice, oats and pasta in place of white, or use chickpeas, lentils or beans as the starch in your meal.

Often overlooked but a fundamental part of Mediterranean tradition is the social aspect to mealtimes. Making meals an event with family and friends, where you cook something special and take your time over eating, is also believed to be beneficial to wellbeing. It’s no surprise that research into the so-called Blue Zones – areas of the world with the longest-living inhabitants – shows a common factor of positive family and social connections.

Green Gazpacho Recipe with Burrata and Prosciutto

Four Mediterranean recipes to try

Mediterranean chicken traybake

This simple chicken traybake recipe comes sprinkled with olives, feta, oregano and baby plum tomatoes. All you need to do is some simple veg prep and then it roasts for an hour until the chicken is crisp and golden.

Mediterranean chicken traybake

Semi-dried tomato and olive paella

Filled with rich Mediterranean morsels, this plant-based paella has bags of flavour and will impress the whole family – great for a vegan dinner party main.

A large pot of vegan paella with sun blush tomatoes, olives, peppers and courgettes

Grilled sardines with tomato salad

Serve grilled sardines with a vibrant side salad of sweet heirloom tomatoes, crushed almonds and sherry vinegar.

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A white oval platter topped with slices of tomato and topped with grilled sardines

Roasted courgette, chickpea and lemon salad

Try out this quick and easy vegan salad recipe with roasted courgettes and crunchy chickpeas tossed in punchy harissa. It's ready in 20 minutes and low in calories too.

Roasted Courgette Salad with Chickpeas on a White Plate

Authors

Victoria TaylorSenior Dietitian - British Heart Foundation

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