The Mediterranean Sea is surrounded by an extraordinarily diverse group of countries: Italy, France, and Spain to the north, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria to the east, and to the south, the North African countries of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. This means that there isn’t a single “diet” that encompasses the entire Mediterranean region—the spice-laden dishes of Morocco bear little resemblance to the lemon and caper-laced cuisine of southern Italy. Rather, the Mediterranean diet is about what these cuisines have in common: a daily emphasis on vegetables and fruits, beans and lentils, whole grains, more seafood than meat and poultry, and heart-healthy olive oil. This is the essence of the Mediterranean way of eating. Below, you’ll find an introduction to the fundamentals of the Mediterranean diet.
Get to Know the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid
The Mediterranean diet pyramid was originally developed in the 1990s as part of a collaboration between the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire good health through cultural food traditions. The pyramid was based on the outcome of the famous Seven Countries Study, which was begun in the late 1950s by an American physiologist named Ancel Keys.
Keys found that the people of Crete tended to have lower incidences of coronary heart disease than participants in other countries, a fact that he attributed to their traditional diet, which was low in saturated fat and heavily reliant on vegetables, grains, and legumes. The Mediterranean diet pyramid paved the way for the diet’s popularity here in the United States, and it is a useful tool for anyone who is interested in eating this way.
The most common elements of Mediterranean meals—fruits, vegetables, grains (mostly whole), olive oil, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices—form the base of the Mediterranean diet pyramid. Fish and seafood are prominent elements that are consumed often, at least two times per week. Other foods like poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt are consumed in more moderate amounts, daily to weekly depending on the food. Foods like red meat and sweets are consumed with even less frequency and in relatively small quantities in the Mediterranean diet.
Use Meats and Cheeses as Seasonings
Instead of using meats and cheeses as main ingredients, Mediterranean dishes often use them as seasonings. Dishes aren’t drowned in sauce, but instead drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil or a yogurt or tahini-based sauce to add flavor and richness.
While many American dinner plates are centered around meat or chicken, Mediterranean meals are designed differently. Rather than being the centerpiece, meat is eaten in smaller quantities with the intention that it will be paired with a few other—usually plant-based—dishes of equal portions, like fresh salads, vegetable and bean dishes, and whole grains.
Limit Unhealthy Fats and Focus on Unlocking Interesting Flavors
Eating the Mediterranean way will help you eliminate unhealthy saturated fats, salt, and calories. And because meat will no longer be the focal point of your meals, you’ll have to think about new (and, it should be noted, exciting) ways to bring out the flavor of certain ingredients. One way of doing that is to use lots of fresh herbs and spices in your cooking. Another way to bring out flavor is to utilize cooking techniques such as roasting, braising, and grilling.
Embrace the Health Benefits
Since the original Seven Countries Study, countless studies have proven that the benefits of the Mediterranean diet go far beyond cardiovascular health—and, unlike most trendy diets, the health effects have been studied over the long term. You can hardly read the news without coming across an article detailing the findings of yet another study on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
With its high amounts of vegetables and olive oil, which contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, the Mediterranean diet has been said to promote healthy blood sugar levels, improve cognitive function, and even prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancer. And while the Mediterranean diet isn’t low in fat, some studies have found that people who eat this way do tend to weigh less and have improved body mass index, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. Other studies indicate that adhering to a Mediterranean diet results in better overall health, both physical and mental. Which is to say, the Mediterranean diet seems like a pretty good place to start for someone who is looking to eat healthy foods that are also delicious.
This article originally appeared on America’s Test Kitchen.