The Mediterranean Diet

Eat well to lower cholesterol

Basing your diet on the foods people eat in the Mediterranean is a great way to look after your heart.

We have known for some time that people living in countries along the Mediterranean appear to have less heart disease than people living in the UK and northern Europe.

Health professionals now believe that this may be partly due to the foods that make up the traditional Mediterranean way of eating.

The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. It usually includes a low intake of meat and dairy foods. This is now seen as a good way of eating – both for a healthy heart and for general well-being.

The UK’s own eat well guide is made up of similar foods and in similar amounts.

Traditionally, people in the Mediterranean eat...

  • More fruit and vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts, pulses (peas, beans and lentils) and seeds.
  • Less saturated fat from dairy and red meat sources.
  • Less alcohol.
  • More seafood especially oily fish.

Why is a Mediterranean diet good for you?

  • It's not a low fat diet, but much less of the fat comes from saturated sources like butter, fatty meats, pastry or dairy fat.
  • It's rich in monounsaturated fats which are heart healthy, such as olive oil and nuts.
  • It's a good source of omega 3 fatty acids from seafood, especially oily fish which are good for your heart health too.
  • It's rich in potassium, which comes from wholegrain cereals, fruit, vegetables and nuts.
  • It's rich in fibre including soluble fibre from wholegrain cereals, vegetables, fruit, beans and peas.
  • rich in antioxidants including vitamins E and C, carotenoids and flavonoids.
  • It's rich in B vitamins including folic acid.

What makes a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle?

  • Fruit and vegetables – fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Aim for at least five servings every day, or more if you can, and include a wide variety. These foods are rich in essential nutrients, they are also low in calories. 
  • Starchy carbohydrate foods – base meals on foods such as bread, noodles, chapatti, rice, pasta and yams. Wholegrain varieties are generally higher in fibre, so they're good for digestive health too.
  • Fish – white fish is low in fat and calories, so they're helpful when managing weight. Oily fish, although higher in fat, contain essential omega-3 fats and vitamin D. 
  • Nuts and nut butters – choose unsalted varieties. Nuts are rich in monounsaturated fats. As a guide, try to eat about 30-35g (a handful) each day.
  • Use oils rich in monounsaturated fats – such as olive and rapeseed (canola) oils, and spreading fats made from these.
  • Try to get out in the sunshine for at least 30 minutes during the spring, summer and early autumn – apply sun tan lotion if you expose your skin to strong sunlight, if you are out for a long time or if you are very fair skinned. 
  • Take a vitamin D supplement – if you're over 65, housebound or if you have little exposure to sun then it is recommended that you take a daily vitamin D supplement. 5-10mcg (micrograms) per day is all that you need. 

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Healthy Mediterranean diet food swaps

Eat less of these
  • Lard
  • Butter, margarine
  • White bread, pasta, rice
  • Cornflakes
  • Sweet biscuits, cakes
  • Chocolate, crisps
  • Pastry
  • Takeaways
  • Sausages, burgers, fatty meat
  • High fat cheese, cream, milk
Eat more of these
  • Olive, rapeseed and sunflower oils
  • Olive oil and sunflower spreads
  • Wholegrain breads, brown pasta, brown rice
  • Porridge, oat based cereals, wheat biscuits, muesli
  • Oatcakes, digestives
  • Unsalted nuts, dried and fresh fruit
  • Lentils, beans, peas
  • Meals made from basic fresh ingredients
  • Lean meat, seafood and oily fish
  • Reduced fat dairy foods, soya and other dairy alternatives

How do you score on the Mediterranean check list?

See how many of these Mediterranean essentials you're already doing and see what you can improve on.

  • Have at least five portions of fruit, vegetables and pulses every day.
    A portion is roughly a handful.
  • Eat nuts and seeds each day.
    Eat these as snacks, to top cereals and desserts, or add them to recipes.
  • Have at least two meat free days each week.
  • Have three portions of wholegrains each day.
    Such as wholemeal bread and pasta, wholegrain breakfast cereals, brown rice, oats, pearl barley.
  • Have at least two portions of fish or seafood per week.
    One of which is oily.
  • Include pulses in meals at least twice a week.
    Pulses are beans, peas and lentils.
  • Use olive, rapeseed & sunflower oils.
    Use these as your main cooking fats and for salad dressing, and choose spreads based on these oils too. 
  • Use onions, leeks, tomatoes and garlic.
    In sauces, stews, casseroles and soups at least twice a week.
  • Cook most of your meals from fresh and unprocessed ingredients.