Consistently ranked among the top of the U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Diets lists, the Mediterranean diet is known for its heart health benefits and focuses on fish, olive oil, whole grains and red wine. Maybe you’re intrigued by the concept of the Mediterranean diet but you don’t love Greek or Italian food. Although the eating style originated in the countries that face the Mediterranean Sea, it’s possible to adapt the principles of the diet to fit any cuisine that piques your fancy.
“Part of what makes the Mediterranean diet one of the world’s healthiest and most sustainable diets is that it’s one of the easiest diets to adapt to a variety of cultures and food preferences,” says Kate Geagan, RD. “The diet can serve as a blueprint for healthy eating, as all of the diet’s benefits stem from a core set of principles that can be applied to other cultural foodways or cuisines.”
If you eat mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, and you eat seafood and poultry more often than red meat, you may already be following your own version of the Mediterranean diet. The eating style also limits dairy products and sugary sweets, while allowing for antioxidant-rich red wine.
“Some of the basic principles are to use olive oil and other heart-healthy unsaturated fats, like nuts and avocado, instead of saturated fat, like butter and cheese and to make veggies and whole grains the center of your plate while cutting down on meat,” says Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
Eating whole foods, rather than processed foods, is another key element to the diet. “If you are using foods that look close to what they look like in nature or are a one-step process away from that original food, then you are likely eating in the Mediterranean way,” says Dana Sicko, RD, a chef and nutritionist in Baltimore.
Many of the foods you likely already have at home can be used to create Mediterranean-style dishes, even if you branch out beyond traditional Mediterranean cuisines.
“The Mediterranean pantry contains beans and lentils, canned seafood, canned and frozen vegetables and fruit, dry grains, potatoes, onions and garlic,” says Serena Ball, RD, author of “Easy Everyday Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” “All of these ingredients can be adapted for different recipes from around the world,” she adds.
If you’re looking to expand on the principles of the Mediterranean diet and apply them to other cuisines around the world, here’s how to get started:
The injera bread made from whole-grain teff that’s common in Ethiopian fare can be a healthy addition to your meal. Other traditional African dishes may easily fit into a Mediterranean diet. “Potatoes and beets are used in Mediterranean countries, [while] different tubers, like yams and cassava, are used on the African continent,” Ball says. “All these root veggies provide healthy carbs and plant-based protein.”
Opt for seafood or chicken over processed meats like sausage, and incorporate plenty of veggies. For the classic Cajun dish, jambalaya, “add volume with lots of colorful, antioxidant-rich vegetables, like the mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery, along with diced butternut squash, okra, spinach and corn,” says Staci Gulbin, RD. “When having rice as a side dish to stews or jambalaya, use brown rice or quinoa, instead of white rice.”
Whenever possible, cook with olive oil or sesame oil and include an abundance of vegetables before adding protein. “Stir-fry vegetables with proteins like tofu, cold-water fish like salmon and trout and lean proteins like chicken breast and lean cuts of pork,” Gulbin says. “Enjoy spices like ginger, garlic, chili peppers, ground black pepper or scallions.”
Many Indian dishes are traditionally prepared with ghee, which is clarified butter. Try an alternative instead. “See if you can cook with healthier fats or perhaps use a combo of unsaturated fat — olive, avocado, peanut, sesame oils — with ghee,” Young says. “Another option is to reduce the total amount of fat used, which is often very doable.”
Lean toward vegetarian dishes, and have a heavy hand when flavoring your meal with garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric, garam masala and more. “Herbs and spices contain valuable bioactive compounds and antioxidants and are something the Mediterranean diet leans heavily on,” Geagan says. “Many traditional vegetarian Indian dishes are bursting with fragrant, health-promoting herbs and spices.”
Japanese cuisine typically incorporates seafood, but you can mix up the whole grains by opting for brown rice instead of white and soba noodles. “Choose salmon sashimi with avocado, brown rice and mixed greens or steamed vegetables on the side,” Gulbin says. “Instead of a red meat entree, opt for salmon or sea bass with lots of veggies,” recommends Young.
“Instead of a meat burrito, opt for a plant-based version,” says Young. You can also use guacamole and black beans to replace some of the cheese in traditionally cheese-heavy dishes like quesadillas.
Similarly, you can find alternatives to sour cream for meal accompaniments. “Salsas are a beautiful way to incorporate tons of vegetables and add punches of flavor to your dish without the use of dairy,” Sicko says.
Originally published February 2021, updated May 2023
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