When you think of the Mediterranean diet, the first thing that might come to mind is eating lots of fish. That’s because the popular diet places an emphasis on heart-healthy omega-3’s, which can be found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines. Still, it doesn’t mean the diet is off limits for vegetarians.
In fact, the opposite is true: “The Mediterranean diet is predominantly a plant-based diet,” says Rahaf Al Bochi, RD, owner of Olive Tree Nutrition, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “There’s a heavy focus on fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and olive oil,” she says.
While meat is allowed on a Mediterranean diet, it’s a “meat-lite style,” where larger Sunday suppers might feature chicken or lamb, but other days of the week focus around legumes as a primary protein source. Legumes, like beans and lentils, and whole grains are the stars of the show and offer a mix of protein, fiber and antioxidants. You may also eat eggs and smaller amounts of dairy, depending on your preferences.
Eating fresh, whole foods and less processed, refined fare yields numerous health benefits, notes Al Bochi. Studies have shown the Mediterranean diet helps improve cardiovascular health, regulate blood sugar and even improves endurance for exercise.
To reap the benefits as a vegetarian, here are six tips to get started:
ALWAYS CHOOSE OLIVE OIL
Recent research found people who exclusively used olive oil compared to those who avoided it had a lower risk of developing heart disease. “Adding the healthy fat to veggies helps your body absorb a greater amount of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K,” says Al Bochi, who suggests using it to sauté or roast veggies or to drizzle on salads and dips.
You may have heard olive oil breaks down or oxidizes under high heat. However, a recent analysis found olive oil can actually take the heat, remaining stable during the cooking process, likely because of its unique blend of antioxidant polyphenols.
FILL UP ON WHOLE GRAINS
In addition to traditional 100% whole-wheat bread, make sure to include hearty ancient grains. These include freekeh, barley, bulgur and farro, which can add variety and extra nutrients to everything from grain bowls to salads, says Al Bochi.
EAT MORE NUTS AND SEEDS
Opt for walnuts and chia, flax and hemp seeds, which are all rich in alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Likewise, other nuts and seeds, such as almonds, offer monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) that support a healthy weight and offer filling protein and fiber.
MAKE FRUIT AND VEGGIES THE CENTER OF YOUR PLATE
As a vegetarian, you’ll want to fill up on extra fruits and veggies, which should be the center of your plate, says Al Bochi. While any variety is fair game, the Mediterranean diet is often packed with dark leafy greens (such as collard greens, mustard greens and kale) as well as zucchini, eggplant and artichokes.
PLAY WITH SPICES
Amp up the flavor of dishes with spices (like cumin, fennel, garlic and za’atar) and fresh herbs including oregano, thyme and rosemary. “These are key components of the Mediterranean diet that make meals interesting and can also help you cut down on sodium,” says Al Bochi.
INVOLVE LOVED ONES
The Mediterranean diet is more than just a diet — it’s a lifestyle,” says Al Bochi. “Sharing food with friends and family and socializing over meals is encouraged,” she says. This can make meal time more enjoyable and help the whole family cook healthy, nutritious foods.