The Mediterranean diet is not all pasta and breadsticks. The Mediterranean diet involves fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, herbs, and spices. While primarily plant-based, it allows for limited amounts of fish and meat. It's called the Mediterranean diet because its foods are mainly those enjoyed in Italy, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Some people are flexitarians, meaning they're semi-vegetarians since they occasionally eat meat. We won't consider the flexitarian diet here because the regular Mediterranean diet is flexitarian. We will limit our discussion to pescatarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and vegans. The main distinction between the three diets is:
- Pescatarians eat plant-based foods and seafood
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat plant-based foods plus dairy, and eggs
- Vegans eat only plant-based foods
This complete guide will tell you who should consider a vegetarian Mediterranean diet, what great foods to include in your meal plan, and how to get help from the best nutritionists as you start this new food journey.
The Bottom Line
- Why should you consider a vegetarian Mediterranean diet? Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet is effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and overall mortality
- Top nutrients to incorporate into your vegetarian Mediterranean diet: Complete proteins, mix and match incomplete proteins, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid, iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, herbs, and spices
- How Top Nutrition Coaching can help: A registered dietitian nutritionist can help make transitioning to a Mediterranean diet much easier and more stress-free by helping you plan meal plans catered to your personal health goals and needs
Why Should You Consider a Vegetarian Mediterranean Diet?
For a good reason, dieticians rank the Mediterranean diet as one of the best in the world. It’s also considered one of the best diets for women over 50 to look and feel their best. Studies suggest it offers the following health benefits:
- It helps maintain a healthy weight
- It reduces your risk of heart disease
- It can prevent dementia as you grow older
- It reduces risk of stroke
- It prevents type 2 diabetes
- It's an anti-inflammatory diet that helps with chronic inflammation-related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis
- It protects against certain types of cancer
- It may support better mental health
Many of these health benefits are the same as those reported for vegetarian diets. That makes sense because the Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based.
It's worth noting that two of the world's five "blue zones" are islands in the Mediterranean. These areas have the highest percentage of people living to be over 100. And there's a remarkable lack of dementia in these zones.
And it gets better. People are much more likely to stay on the Mediterranean diet because the food tastes good!
What if we combine the even better benefits of a vegetarian diet with the tastes of the Mediterranean diet? Now that's a natural powerhouse diet, which we'll explore in the sections below.
Top 10 Nutrients To Incorporate When Preparing a Vegetarian Mediterranean Diet
When removing meat from your diet, you'll need to consider issues like how you get enough protein. How do you get all the essential amino acids? How will you get the most effective omega-3 fatty acids? We'll discuss those issues and more in the sections below.
Unlike meat, most plants do not have complete proteins. They lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids. The plant-based foods that have complete proteins include:
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Nutritional yeast
- Soy products like tofu, edamame, tempeh, and miso
- Some grains, such as quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth
- Sea vegetables like spirulina
Though some of these foods aren't common in Mediterranean countries, you can incorporate them into a vegetarian Mediterranean diet.
If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you can get complete proteins from dairy and eggs. Greek yogurt, kefir, goat milk, goat cheese, and sheep cheese are some of your best dairy options on the Mediterranean diet.
If you're a pescatarian, you have the most choices for complete proteins since that diet includes seafood. The seafood most common in the Mediterranean countries is:
- Shellfish such as oysters, clams, crab, and lobster
- Octopus and squid
- Sea bass
- Sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring (SMASH) fish
SMASH fish are the most nutrient-dense seafood. And, unlike tuna, which is prone to high pollution levels like mercury, these smaller fish have a much lower concentration of toxic substances.
Mix and Match Incomplete Proteins
As mentioned in the section above, vegans have limited choices for complete proteins. But there's a solution. You can mix and match different kinds of incomplete proteins to get the essential amino acids you need daily. But that isn't very easy, and you'll need an expert registered dietician (RD) to help with these calculations.
Sources of incomplete plant-based proteins include:
- Seeds like pumpkin seeds and flax seeds
- Greens like watercress and spinach
- Legumes like fava beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils
Fava beans have 39 grams of protein in a single cup. In the highlands of Sardinia, fava beans are the most common type of bean that people eat. An unusually high number of people live to be over 100 years old without experiencing symptoms like dementia.
Chickpeas are an incredibly versatile legume. They're the main ingredient in hummus and falafel. Some companies crush chickpeas into flour to make pasta. And, if you have yet to try roasted chickpeas with the correct seasoning, you're missing out.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids — Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
Omega-3s are easy to get on a vegan diet. They're abundant in the following foods:
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sea vegetables
Your body needs the ALA in these foods, but the problem is that most plant-based Omega-3s don't have two fundamental forms that make Omega-3s easily absorbable for humans. Sea vegetables are an exception. These are types of seaweed or algae eaten in parts of the world.
Sea vegetables include nori, spirulina, chlorella, and other seaweeds. If you've ever eaten sushi, you've had nori. It's the wrapping that holds sushi rolls together. Spirulina is an excellent addition to green smoothies. One of spirulina powder's many benefits is that it's one of the few foods known to lower triglycerides.
Besides the sea vegetables, if you're a vegan and want the best Omega-3s, you'll need to take supplemental algae oils and eat foods fortified with EPA and DHA.
If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you're in luck. Eggs naturally have EPA and DHA. Food companies add EPA and DHA to many dairy products. If you're a pescatarian, EPA and DHA aren't a challenge for you, as you'll see in the next section.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids — Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Eggs and sea vegetables have EPA and DHA. But the most significant concentrations of these essential nutrients come in cold-water fish such as the SMASH fish, tuna, and shellfish. So if you're a pescatarian, you can get the full spectrum of Omega-3s you need. And remember, limited amounts of fish are a staple of the Mediterranean diet.
If you're on a vegan diet, getting your recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron is easy. The problem is that most plant-based foods with iron also have phytic acid. This acid is an antinutrient that makes it difficult for your body to absorb iron and other minerals. Phytic acid is commonly called an antinutrient, but that's not a fair assessment since there's evidence that it aids in reducing cholesterol and regulating blood sugar.
Most vegetarians don't have lower levels of iron, which was a surprise. This may be because their bodies change to absorb minerals that phytic acids block better. And there are ways to reduce the absorption-blocking effect of phytic acids, such as by soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food as part of your meal preparation.
Now that we know how to work around phytic acid, here's a list of some of the plant-based foods that are high in iron:
- Soy beans — they contain 55% of your RDA for iron in a single cup
- Soy products like tofu and tempeh
- Kidney beans, white beans, and most other beans and peas
- Nuts like cashews and pine nuts
- Pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds
- Leafy greens like Swiss chard, kale, and spinach
- White mushrooms
- Whole grains like oats, amaranth, spelled, and quinoa
- Cacao — 1 tablespoon provides 4% of your RDA
One egg contains approximately 1.89 mg of iron. If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, one large egg, depending on how it's cooked, will provide over 10% of your daily iron needs. Boiling produces the lowest iron concentration, while scrambled eggs have the highest concentration. Dairy products have very little iron.
If you're a pescatarian, you'll find the most iron in shellfish. A 3-ounce serving of some shellfish contains up to 150% of your RDA for iron. Iron is another area where the SMASH fish and tuna shine. It takes only 3 ounces of sardines to get half the recommended amount of iron daily. That said, women need a little over twice the amount of iron men need daily.
Zinc has the same issue with phytic acid as iron. Again, soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food will reduce the phytic acid.
Good sources of plant-based zinc include:
- Wheat germ
- Soy products like tofu
- Seeds, including hemp seeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds
- Legumes, including lentils, black beans, green peas, and fava beans
- Grains such as oatmeal, wild rice, and quinoa
- Mushrooms, including shitake mushrooms and white button mushrooms
- Pecans and almonds
You can also get zinc from fortified cereals and supplements.
If you're a lacto-ovo vegetarian, dairy products such as yogurt are good sources of zinc. You have all the zinc you'll need if you're a pescatarian. Shellfish are the kings of zinc, and oysters are the undisputed champion.
A single medium-sized oyster has 8.3 grams of zinc. Most females only need 8 mg of zinc daily, while males need 11 mg. So, if you eat an oyster daily, you will get most or all of the zinc you need. Since zinc promotes a robust immune system, perhaps the better saying would be "an oyster a day keeps the doctor away" instead of "an apple a day."
Vitamin B-12 is hard to get if you follow a plant-based diet and is one of the many vitamins and minerals vegans should keep an eye on. Some mushrooms and many sea vegetables, like algae and seaweed, have vitamin B-12 in them naturally. The problem with some of the sea vegetables, like spirulina, is that your body can't absorb their form of vitamin B-12. That said, other sea vegetables like nori and chlorella do have absorbable vitamin B-12.
Studies show that, on average, shiitake mushrooms have twice the RDA for vitamin B-12 with 5.61 mcg. Mushrooms also happen to be one of the best vegetables for weight loss. That said, the variance among mushrooms tested shows that different 100-gram samples of shiitake mushrooms were as much as 3.9 mcg off the standard, meaning it's hard to know what you're getting.
It's also hard to know what you are getting from a sea vegetable. So far, nori is the sea vegetable that's most reliable for vitamin B-12.
The best source of vitamin B-12 for vegans is nutritional yeast. It's usually fortified with vitamin B-12. Some brands have three times the daily RDA in a single tablespoon.
For lacto-ovo vegetarians, two eggs provide about 15% of your RDA for vitamin B-12. Dairy is also a good source of vitamin B-12, with a single cup of whole milk providing approximately 50% of your daily RDA for vitamin B-12.
Pescatarians have the best access to vitamin B-12. With clams and sardines near the top of the list of best sources of vitamin B-12, a tiny serving of this seafood is enough to reach your RDA.
Vitamin D is another tricky vitamin for vegans to obtain. Along with vitamin B-12, vitamin D is one of the best vitamins for heart health and circulation. You can get Vitamin D from mushrooms and other plants, but you must eat a lot to get enough. Sunlight is an option, but more sunlight is needed. The best option is usually orange juice or cereal fortified with vitamin D.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get vitamin D from egg yolks and fortified milk. Cod liver oil, salmon, sardines, and swordfish are some of the best places to get vitamin D if you are a pescatarian.
The Right Herbs
Herbs and spices give the Mediterranean diet the taste that makes it so easy to follow. They're also among the most nutrient-rich "foods" in the Mediterranean diet. These herbs and spices can significantly impact your health; the best part is that a little goes a long way.
Herbs and spices are often used interchangeably as if they are synonyms. But they are two distinct food groups. The simple explanation is that herbs are the leafy parts of a plant, while spices are ground roots, bark, stems, or seeds.
Some common herbs used in the Mediterranean diet include:
- Bay leaf
All of these contain potent antioxidants and flavonoids that promote good health. A less common but essential herb is milk thistle. It's one of the few foods known to protect your liver. It's often drunk as an herbal tea.
The Right Spices
Typical spices used in the Mediterranean diet include:
All of these spices, once again, have superpowers. Fennel, for instance, promotes good digestive health. Cinnamon is a great sweetener to replace sugar-based sweeteners.
There are a couple of essential spices that need to be added here. Tumeric and ginger aren't native to the Mediterranean region. Like cinnamon, they're from South Asia. For our Mediterranean diet, we'll cheat a bit and add these. On the other hand, turmeric has been in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years.
So why is it so essential to get turmeric on the list? Because there's significant evidence that it has all of these benefits and more:
The joke is that the only health issue turmeric can't help you with is your parachute not opening while skydiving! You can put half a teaspoon of turmeric in a smoothie. Mix it with black pepper to aid absorption, and add a dash of cinnamon to get the right taste. Another great point about herbs and spices is that they are vegan-friendly!
How Top Nutrition Coaching Can Help
Now that you're ready to start your vegetarian Mediterranean diet, there are many things to think about, such as getting all the nutrients you need in the right amounts. It's easier if you're already a vegetarian. But the many foods, including the herbs and spices required to get the most out of the Mediterranean diet, may be unfamiliar to you. And you have to figure out the best recipes and how to make meal preparation convenient.
The easiest way to start your vegetarian Mediterranean diet is to first meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist. This health expert can help you plan balanced meals that are perfectly catered to your personal needs and goals. They will also have tips for what you need to make food preparation the most straightforward.
A vegetarian Mediterranean diet is a tasty and nutritious way to support your health and well-being. Even though you might have to change how and what you eat, the benefits of this diet are well worth the effort. From improving heart health to promoting longevity, a vegetarian Mediterranean diet offers a wealth of benefits that can help you look and feel your best for years to come.
Still, starting a vegetarian Mediterranean diet for the first time can be challenging in some ways. Your body may take time adjusting to new foods, flavors, and textures. You will also have to get used to making home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients, which may cost more and take more planning and preparation.
Working with a registered dietitian-nutritionist from Top Nutrition Coaching can make transitioning to this diet much easier and more stress-free. At Top Nutrition Coaching, you'll be matched with the right nutritionist to help you meet your health goals. We'll get you over the hump as you progress toward your new meal plan. Our nutritionists and dietitians look forward to helping you become a healthier and happier you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are you still trying to figure out vegetarian Mediterranean diets? Below are some frequently asked questions to give you more clarity on vegetarian Mediterranean diets.
What are some excellent vegetarian Mediterranean foods to put on my grocery list?
The Mediterranean diet puts a lot of focus on foods that may reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which are at the root of many chronic diseases. Fish high in omega-3s, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and good oils are some of these foods.
What's an excellent vegetarian breakfast for the Mediterranean diet?
Try blueberries with steel-cut oats and Ikaria honey. Stir in a tablespoon of almond butter, a tablespoon of cacao, and a tablespoon of hemp seeds.
I need help to make a meal plan. What should I do?
Luckily, qualified nutritionists, like those at Top Nutrition Coaching, can guide you through meal planning and work with you to create a personalized plan for healthier eating habits.