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The Mediterranean Lifestyle

Sea breeze, warm weather, laying in a hammock while surrounded by beautiful architecture, and soaking up the sun sounds like a dream right now. Just because we can’t physically be there, doesn’t mean we can’t eat like we are living in the Mediterranean. Over time, researchers have found individuals residing in the 22 countries along the Mediterranean Sea are living longer and have a lower incidence of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases compared to Americans and those in Northern Europe.

Since there’s a diverse culture of people living along the Mediterranean Sea, there is no one perfect Mediterranean diet; however, they all follow a similar design. “The Mediterranean diet is more of a pattern or a lifestyle. Rather than counting calories or eliminating food groups, it focuses on incorporating more fruits, seafood, vegetables, herbs, spices, beans, and heart-healthy fats and oils,” Lisa Peterson, University of Illinois Nutrition and Wellness Extension Educator explains. The Mediterranean diet has been ranked as the overall best diet and easiest to follow for the past three years by U.S. News and World Report. The diet is also endorsed by the World Health Organization, American Heart Association, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are the primary focuses of the Mediterranean diet. Eggs, dairy, and poultry are encouraged in moderation and eating red meat or sweets for only special occasions. Additionally, the Mediterranean lifestyle encourages physical activity, eating meals with others, and the occasional glass of red wine. Find small ways to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into daily life.

Swap butter for olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is a heart-healthy option and one of the essential fats used in the Mediterranean diet. Extra virgin olive oil has omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and doesn’t have a negative impact on blood cholesterol.

Aim for whole over refined grains. Whole grains are minimally processed and contain higher amounts of B vitamins and fiber. The first word on the ingredient listing should be whole-grain or whole-wheat. Experiment with different whole grains such as quinoa, farro, or bulgur instead of plain spaghetti noodles.

Eat more fruits and vegetables. Add more fruits and vegetables to each meal. Rather than eating them raw, try roasting, steaming, or drizzling with olive oil and herbs in a salad. Craving something sweet? Grab some strawberries, pineapple, a banana, apples, or another fruit. Rather than spending more money on meat, focus on spending more on fruits and vegetables. Shop in season, or purchase frozen or canned to help get more for your money.

Fish finds. Finding inexpensive fresh fish in the Midwest can be a struggle. The Mediterranean diet encourages fish twice a week. Purchase from the frozen, canned, or pouched varieties for more budget-friendly options. Fattier fish such as tuna or salmon are good sources of heart-healthy omega-three fatty acids.

Snack on nuts, seeds, and veggies. Create your own trail mix for an easy grab and go snack. Try making some hummus using chickpeas or a dip with bell peppers and whole grain pita bread for a refreshing afternoon snack. Nuts, seeds, and beans are higher in fiber and protein and keep you fuller longer.

May is Mediterranean diet month and an opportunity to make healthy changes. Tabbouleh is a traditional Mediterranean salad with a fresh lemon flavor. Typically made with the whole grain bulgur, the recipe provided is made with quinoa for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitive. For additional questions about the Mediterranean diet, talk to your dietitian or contact the local Extension office.

Non-Traditional Tabbouleh

Makes 12-1 cup servings

1 cup quinoa

4 tomatoes, washed & diced

4 green onions, washed & chopped

1 English cucumber, washed & finely chopped

1-14.5 oz. chickpeas, drained & rinsed

½ cup feta cheese

½ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped


1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup lemon juice

1 clove garlic

½ tsp. pepper


  1. Wash hands with soap and water.
  2. Cook quinoa according to directions.
  3. Combine cooked quinoa, vegetables, herbs, and cheese in a large bowl.
  4. In a separate bowl, whisk together lemon juice, garlic, and pepper. Slowly add oil while mixing.
  5. Combine oil mixture with quinoa blend. Refrigerate covered 30 minutes before serving for best flavor.

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 150 calories, 9 grams fat, 140 milligrams sodium, 14 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 0 grams added sugar, 5 grams protein


Questions about food safety, nutrition, food preservation, or looking for recipes? Contact the local University of Illinois Extension office.

Source: Lisa Peterson, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness