A Vegetarian’s Guide to the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has been wildly popular for decades, and for good reason: It may improve heart health and protect against certain cancers and neurological diseases. Research shows it could benefit your waistline, and the U.S. New & World Report ranked the Med Diet as the best overall diet (tied with the DASH Diet).
But I find it appealing for another reason: I’m vegetarian. Unlike many trendy diets out there—paleo, keto, Whole 30, Wheat Belly—with their emphasis on animal proteins and discouragement of carbs or grains—the Mediterranean diet is vegetarian-friendly.
Don’t get me wrong; those other diets work. When I went veg 20 years ago, I subsisted on pasta, bread, eggs, and cheese. Thirty pounds later, I caved and spent a spring following the new low-carb, high-protein South Beach Diet. My cholesterol went up as the pounds came off, and I remember feeling sad and annoyed that I couldn’t stick to the diet without eating meat.
Once those pounds came off, however, I returned to my veggie-exclusive ways—but in a much smarter way (and, as it turned out, in a Mediterranean way).
I cooked almost exclusively with olive oil and ate lots of fresh produce, herbs, beans, and whole grains. I snacked on nuts, dried fruit, yogurt, and cheese, but limited my intake of sugar and processed foods. I also enjoyed the occasional glass of wine and embraced eating as a social activity.
Sounds like a pretty great diet, doesn’t it? But as with most things d-i-e-t, my adherence to it has been a little lax from time to time. I turned to the book Prevention Mediterranean Table to see where I could improve the way I eat. But what I found surprised me: I wasn’t eating as “Mediterranean” as I thought.
You Have to Eat A LOT of Produce
While Mediterranean-style eating includes having more meatless meals and plant-based proteins, it also calls for consuming 7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Spoiler: I certainly wasn’t getting that. Tossing a handful of blueberries into my oatmeal, adding a couple slices of tomato to my lunch sandwich, snacking on a piece of fruit, and microwaving some frozen veggies for a dinner side apparently wasn’t cutting it.
To up your veggie intake, Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RDN, coauthor of the book and owner of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy, says to choose in-season produce when it’s most flavorful. She also recommends making a meal out of sides (yes, really!).
I was skeptical of this advice, because eating only sides is the Thanksgiving Day dread of most American vegetarians. But when we’re controlling the sides—like Texas Caviar, Orange-Tarragon Sheet Pan Roasted Vegetables, Parslied Brown Rice Pilaf, and Braised Fingerling Potatoes with Oregano and Thyme—we can have far more healthful, delicious, and satisfying options than the usual mashed potatoes, corn, or pasta.
Don’t Stress (Too Much) About Protein
The diet is low in red meat, but is big on eating fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel at least twice a week. So I wondered: Can a vegetarian truly reap the benefits of a Mediterranean diet without the seafood? And how can I get enough protein if I'm not eating meat or fish?
“The traditional diet Mediterranean diet is more ‘vegi-terranean’ than ‘meat-terranean,’” says McDaniel. “Much of the health benefits are largely due to the fact that fruits and vegetables play a starring role,” she adds. Vegetarians who follow the Mediterranean diet “rarely need to worry about a deficit in protein if they eat a varied diet including nuts, beans, seeds, dairy, eggs, tofu, and high-protein whole grains such as quinoa.”
This is good news for me, as many of these foods appear in my weekly rotation. I could, however, be eating more beans and grains. A little bit of weekly meal prep would help. If I had quinoa or other, longer-cooking whole grains on hand, it would be so much easier to fix a hearty, healthful, filling salad during the week, rather than relying on sorry salads or simple sandwiches.
I could also try getting more protein into my breakfasts. “Research in satiety shows that eating a larger breakfast with 20 to 30 grams of protein may help promote satiety and a healthy body weight,” McDaniel says. She suggests a couple eggs, toast, and a small side of Greek yogurt; a smoothie with fruits, vegetables, and Greek yogurt or protein powder; or cottage cheese with herbs, tomatoes, olives, and cucumber.
Just be aware that if you’re aiming to get the same amount of protein out of plants that’s available in animal products, you’re likely going to be eating more calories, fat, and carbohydrates. For example, to get the same amount of protein that’s in a 3-ounce chicken breast, you would need to eat nearly 2 cans of black beans for almost 3 times the calories. But, notes McDaniel, “a plant-based protein plus healthy source of fat can help keep you satisfied until the next meal or snack.”
Pay Attention to Omega-3s
McDaniel adds that getting the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids without eating fish “is a tougher feat.” While ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, chia seeds, and seaweed all contain the omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), this fatty acid isn’t efficiently converted to the more potent omega-3 fats EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). In other words, you’d have to eat A LOT of ALA to reap the same health benefits. McDaniel recommends supplementing a veggie-based diet with fish oil or an algal-derived source of DHA/EPA.
Pair Your Vitamins Strategically
“Other nutrients that might need particular attention in a vegetarian diet include iron, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin B12,” says McDaniel. However, “a well-planned vegetarian-Mediterranean diet that includes a variety of food groups should provide sufficient amounts of these essential nutrients.”
McDaniel does advise her clients to have their vitamin D levels checked by their doctors, as those levels “tend to come up short,” even for meat eaters. True enough: I had mine checked, and my levels were a little low—but they were easily remedied with a vitamin D supplement and a good dose of sunlight.
Make a Balanced Plate
Veggies should be the star of the show on a Mediterranean Diet, and McDaniel explains that half a vegetarian’s plate should still include veggies; the other half should be balanced with a mixture of whole grains and plant-based proteins, such as farro and white beans.
Combining a variety of plant-based protein sources, such as whole grains and legumes, over the course of a day or two provides the “right mix” of the 20 amino acids, or the building blocks of protein, notes McDaniel. She also recommends the inclusion of a healthy fat, like olive oil.
“The plate still needs to be personalized to your health or body-composition goals,” she says. “Those seeking weight loss might fill 2/3 of their plate with more veggies and 1/3 whole-grains/legumes, plus healthy fat. On the flip side, those looking to increase muscle or body weight, might increase their intake of the grains and plant-based proteins plus healthy oil.”
Get some plant-based meal inspo from some of our favorite vegetarian recipes.
Don’t Skimp on Snacks
It’s important to note that the Mediterranean diet is partly about lifestyle. It’s enjoying meals with family and friends. It’s drinking that glass of red wine, if you’re so inclined. But many folks in Mediterranean cultures take their meals late, often after 10 p.m. They also don’t snack the way we do.
McDaniel says it’s okay for us to veer from tradition a little bit. “Appropriately portioned snacks can help maintain energy between meals, prevent overeating at mealtime, and fill in any nutritional gaps in one’s day,” she says. Try veggies dipped in hummus or baba ghanoush, stuffed dates, grape leaves, or Greek yogurt with muesli. McDaniel adds, “Most Americans would benefit from eating more during the light of the day and less at night” to support healthy body weight and manage hunger.
The Bottom Line
I’m glad I took a closer look at what makes up a true Mediterranean diet, especially since it’s so well suited for vegetarians. While I had a decent grasp on it, I see where I can improve for better all-around health, without feeling hungry or deprived.