Thinking of the Mediterranean diet may conjure up images of eating olive oil-drenched bread and sipping wine on the coast of Italy or Greece. But what does it actually mean to follow a Mediterranean diet? The Mediterranean diet has long been considered a curative diet for many non-communicable conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If you’re new to the Mediterranean diet, it can be daunting to try to figure out what foods are included in the diet and what you should be eating. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the Mediterranean diet for beginners, and how the Mediterranean diet can benefit fatty liver disease.
The Mediterranean Diet in a Nutshell
Here are the guiding principles for following the Mediterranean diet:
1. Prioritize Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and veggies are fundamental to the Mediterranean diet. Fruits and veggies are filled with micronutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols. The fiber in fruits in vegetables is crucial for promoting gut health, as well as liver and brain health. Vitamin E and vitamin C are potent antioxidant vitamins found in a variety of fruits and veggies that support optimal immune system function as well as liver repair. Polyphenols in fruits and vegetables like flavonoids help protect against oxidative stress in all the cells throughout the body, including the liver. Liver cells affected by the fatty liver disease are particularly prone to oxidative stress, which inhibits normal cellular functions.
2. Eat an Abundance of Whole Grains
Whole grains are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates that provide sustained energy without causing detrimental spikes in blood sugar. Whole grains are also filled with fiber that supports a healthy gut microbiome, filled with beneficial bacteria that produce anti-inflammatory compounds instead of damaging compounds. Less commonly known is that whole grains also supply a great deal of protein, as well as antioxidants.
3. Sprinkle in Healthy Fats Found in Nuts, Seeds, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Nuts, seeds, and olive oil provide healthy sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Healthy nuts and seeds to add to your diet include almonds, walnuts, pecans, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Flaxseeds and chia seeds, in particular, are rich in plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids that are particularly important for reducing oxidative stress and inflammation throughout the body.
Use extra virgin olive oil sparingly. Even though it’s a healthy fat, it is also pure fat, so it’s easier to consume vast quantities of fat from oil than from nuts.
4. Use Lots of Herbs
Herbs are concentrated in health-promoting polyphenols. Polyphenols, found mainly in plant foods, are small compounds that promote antioxidant activity. They have been found to help slow the aging process, protect against age-related cognitive problems, support the reversal of fatty liver disease, and promote healthy immune system activity. The Mediterranean diet is rich in herbs like oregano, basil, thyme, and rosemary.
5. Include Small Portions of Fish, Chicken, Eggs, and Low-Fat Diary
Some versions of the Mediterranean diet may encourage moderate amounts of chicken and low-fat dairy. If you have fatty liver disease, stick mainly to fatty fish for protein and essential amino acids, with smaller portions of chicken and dairy. A primarily plant-based Mediterranean diet is the best way to fight against inflammation, promote gut health, and support the reversal of fatty liver disease.
Fatty fish is a superior meat source when compared to chicken and dairy because it not only affords all essential amino acids but also loads of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. The naturally occurring fats in fish are healthy polyunsaturated fats that promote liver and brain health.
Think about how you’ve never heard of “low-fat fish.” This is because there’s no health reason to remove the fats present in fish and doing so would actually make the fish less healthy. In contrast, the naturally occurring fats in dark meat chicken or dairy are saturated fats that play a role in worsening cholesterol levels and negatively impacting metabolic health and cardiovascular function. Excellent fatty fish options include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and anchovies.
6. Limit Red Meat, Processed Meats, Refined Sugars, and Processed Foods
Red meat should only be eaten rarely and in small portions. Red meat, like steaks and ground beef, are often filled with saturated fats that contribute to high cholesterol levels, weight gain, and fatty liver disease. Moreover, red meat also contains artificial nitrates that act as preservatives. When nitrates are cooked along with the protein in meat, the nitrates react negatively with the amino acids to produce nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are harmful compounds that contribute to gut imbalances, oxidative stress, inflammation, cell damage, and insulin resistance.
Similarly, processed meats like bacon, salami, and lunch meats are filled with saturated fats, preservatives, and excess salt that drive up blood pressure levels and contribute to diabetes and insulin resistance.
Refined sugars and processed carbohydrates are similarly detrimental to metabolic functioning and fatty liver disease. Steer clear of added sugars that are found in cookies, cakes, crackers, baked goods, and sweetened beverages like soda and juice. It’s also healthiest to avoid refined carbohydrates that are found in white bread, white rice, and white pasta. The body does not differentiate between added sugars and refined carbohydrates, and both are quickly broken down into glucose and channeled into the bloodstream. These products cause blood sugar levels to soar, requiring a surge of insulin to signal cells to use glucose to power biological functions. Over time, excess sugar consumption contributes to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and fatty liver disease.
What the Research Says: Mediterranean Diet for Fatty Liver Disease
Studies have shown the efficacy of the Mediterranean diet for helping reverse fatty liver disease. Researchers at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and the Lausanne University Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, assessed the impact of the Mediterranean diet on fatty liver disease across two cohorts of adults. Results found that adults adhering to the Mediterranean diet were less likely to have fat accumulation in the liver. (1)
The Mediterranean diet is in line with all dietary requirements for supporting the reversal of fatty liver disease, including healthy fats, essential amino acids, complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. All of these foods work in harmony to lower inflammation in the liver while reversing fat stores in the liver.
What about the Mediterranean diet for diabetics? The Mediterranean diet is absolutely an effective diet for diabetes and other conditions associated with metabolic syndromes like insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and obesity. All of the aspects of the Mediterranean diet that promote a healthy liver also support optimal metabolic functioning. Plus, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes the importance of cutting out processed foods, added sugars, and saturated fats, all of which contribute to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
The Mediterranean diet can also be a useful diet to aid with weight loss. However, it is possible to gain weight when following the Mediterranean diet if you eat a surplus of calories. To lose weight, it’s critical to make sure you’re in a calorie deficit. This means you burn more calories than you consume. Counting macros in food is another way to effectively measure the macronutrients you’re consuming to make sure you’re meeting your energy needs while also promoting weight loss.
Mediterranean Diet Recipe Ideas
When you’re starting a new diet plan, it can be difficult to know where to start and what flavors and ingredients to combine. Below we’ve outlined recipe ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and even desserts that follow the Mediterranean diet. Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas and try out your own flavor combinations, too!
Mediterranean Diet Breakfast Ideas
Breakfasts on the Mediterranean diet can be healthy and delicious, but they don’t have to be complicated!
- Porridge: First, choose a whole-grain porridge of your choice, such as oatmeal, buckwheat, quinoa, or even brown rice. You can mix up the different grains each day to get a variety of textures and flavors. Mix in ground flaxseeds, blueberries, mango, diced apples, and sliced bananas. Serve with low-sugar, plant-based milk.
- Fruit and granola: Make a large fruit salad filled with frozen or fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. If berries are frozen, microwave until warm. Top with a serving of your favorite homemade granola. In a pinch, choose a low-sugar, minimally processed packaged granola. Sprinkle with cinnamon and top with a spoonful of nonfat, low-sugar Greek yogurt and enjoy!
- Avocado toast: Avocado toast is all the rage these days, and it’s also acceptable for the Mediterranean diet. Make sure to choose a whole-grain bread that contains no added sugars. Top with sliced avocado and toppings of your choice, like tomato, sliced onions, and a crumble of feta cheese. Season with a dash of pepper, a sprinkle of salt, and a little hot sauce if you like spice. Occasionally, you can add an egg for extra protein.
Mediterranean Diet Lunch Ideas
You can create light and refreshing lunchtime meals when following the Mediterranean diet.
- Quinoa and white bean salad: Try making a Mediterranean-inspired salad by mixing together quinoa and white beans chopped tomato, cucumber, parsley, and mint. Season with a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, pepper, and a dash of salt.
- Falafel over salad: On Sunday, prepare falafel using your favorite falafel recipe and store in the fridge or freezer to use throughout the week. In a pinch, you can have packaged falafel on hand as long as the ingredients are free of added sugar and contain mainly chickpeas and seasoning. On a bed of kale or arugula, add falafel as well as red pepper, tomatoes, mint, and avocado. Top with a low-fat tzatziki dressing and serve with a side of whole-grain pita bread.
- Lentils: Lentils might be tiny, but they are mighty beans filled with protein and fiber. Try making a large batch of lentils on one day to use throughout the week. First, cook lentils in a pot using vegetable broth, and season with cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, and turmeric. In a separate pan, sauté onions, garlic, tomato, and spinach, and mix with the cooked lentils. Top with lemon juice and fresh chopped cilantro and allow to cool. Store in the fridge for a cold, refreshing lentil salad that can be used as a tasty side dish or add flavor and nutrients to salads and whole-grain pasta dishes.
Mediterranean Diet Dinner Ideas
- Baked Atlantic mackerel: Try oven-baking mackerel and seasoning with roasted red pepper, oregano, olive tapenade, salt, pepper, and lemon. Serve with a side of brown rice and a vegetable medley of red pepper, asparagus, onion, and squash sautéed in garlic and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Caesar salad with grilled chicken: Caesar salad is notoriously high in fat because it is loaded with parmesan cheese and egg. Try this healthy, vegan version of Caesar dressing by the Minimalist Baker. (2) Use on a salad of mixed greens, roasted eggplant, and sundried tomatoes. Top with a serving of grilled chicken and Caesar dressing.
Mediterranean Diet Snack Ideas
- Pita and hummus: Try pairing hummus with whole-grain pita bread as well as sliced carrots, celery, and tomato for dipping.
- Fruit and nuts: The timeless pairing of fruit and nuts provides complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein. You can try mixing dried fruit and nuts or simply eating fresh fruit with a side of mixed nuts. Try pairing dried cranberries or raisins with almonds and walnuts. Dates also pair well with almonds and walnuts. Fresh apple with almond butter provides a perfect blend of crunchy, sweet, savory, and smooth.
- Greek yogurt: Nonfat, low-sugar Greek yogurt is a tasty, protein-packed snack. Top with fresh blueberries, raspberries, ad pumpkin seeds for loads of antioxidants and healthy fats.
- Pistachios: These heart-healthy nuts are delicious on their own, and provide lots of healthy fats, protein, vitamin B6, and manganese. Bring a handful of pistachios with you in a bag when you head to work or school. For an extra punch of antioxidants, pair pistachios with a square of dark chocolate.
- Bread and olive oil: Ok, so you can eat a little bit of olive oil-soaked bread on the Mediterranean diet. Just be sure to choose a whole-grain bread that is free of added sugar. This snack is best consumed in moderation, so as not to overdo it on the olive oil. Prepare a “dip” by pouring a drizzle of olive oil into a shallow dish. Then, sprinkle dried spices and herbs of your choice over the olive oil. Try adding red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, thyme, garlic powder, pepper, and salt to the olive oil. Use the bread as a vehicle for getting healthy herbs and spices with antioxidant properties.
Mediterranean Diet Dessert Ideas
Just because you’re following the Mediterranean diet doesn’t mean desserts are off-limits. Here are a few ideas for preparing liver-friendly desserts.
- Chocolate-covered strawberries: Strawberries are perfectly healthy and afford lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The key to making this classic treat into a liver-friendly friendly dessert lies in the chocolate sauce. Instead of using milk chocolate that’s packed with sugar, opt for low-sugar dark chocolate that is filled with polyphenols. Melt dark chocolate squares with a little bit of plant-based milk and use for dipping.
- Date and nut dessert bites: Dates are one of the sweetest fruits there are, which makes them a perfect ingredient in desserts. In a food processor, add pitted dates, almonds, and cinnamon. Blend and shape remaining paste into balls. Top with crushed pistachios and a drizzle of dark chocolate. You can experiment with different kinds of nuts, like walnuts, pecans, and peanuts. Refrigerate and enjoy!
- Banana “ice cream:” This frozen dessert is a much healthier, potassium-packed, protein-packed alternative to regular ice cream. Before you make this ice cream, buy a bunch of bananas and allow them to ripen until they are very speckled. Peel, place in a plastic bag, and freeze overnight. In a blender, add two frozen bananas, broken up into bite-size chunks. Add a little bit of low-fat coconut milk, a spoonful of cacao powder, and a scoop of your favorite whey protein powder. Blend until smooth, and top with crumbled nuts.
- Chia seed “tapioca:” Pudding made out of chia seeds often has the texture of tapioca, making it an excellent healthy dessert substitute. You can prepare chia seed pudding by soaking whole chia seeds in a mixture of plant-based milk, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and a little bit of your favorite sugar-free sweetener, like erythritol. Soak the chia seed mixture in a container in the refrigerator overnight. The following day, you’ll notice that the soaked chia seeds have formed a gelatinous pudding, comparable to tapioca. Serve with your favorite fruits. Berries, mango, pineapple, and banana compliment the pudding nicely. Chia seed pudding is so healthy that it can hardly be considered a dessert. Chia seeds afford loads of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, protein, and fiber.
What About Red Wine?
Red wine has been a classic part of the Mediterranean diet, but is it healthy? Red wine has been revered for its anti-inflammatory components, like the polyphenol resveratrol. However, if you have fatty liver disease, it’s probably best to eliminate alcohol intake altogether. Alcohol is a toxin that must be processed by the liver and tends to inflict oxidative damage on liver cells that can exacerbate fatty liver disease.
To benefit from the polyphenols without the alcohol content, try sipping on a glass of nonalcoholic red wine with dinner. It will almost feel like you’re drinking the real thing, just without the buzz and alcohol-induced inflammation.
Vegetarian Mediterranean Diet: Is It Healthy?
The vegetarian Mediterranean is completely healthy because it encourages the consumption of all plant food sources, as well as small to moderate amounts of low-fat dairy. When consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is critical not to eliminate any key sources of nutrients. For example, a vegetarian Paleo diet wouldn’t supply ideal quantities of nutrients, since it essentially eliminates all whole grains.
To follow a vegetarian Mediterranean diet for optimal health, it’s important to make sure you get enough essential amino acids from the foods you eat. Our bodies require a dietary intake of nine essential amino acids since we are unable to synthesize them. If you are cutting out fish and chicken as protein sources, it may be necessary to slightly increase your intake of high-quality dairy. Low-fat and nonfat dairy products are complete sources of protein that provide all essential amino acids that we need in optimal ratios. Excellent sources of protein from dairy include low-fat, low-sodium mozzarella cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, and whey protein.
If you decide to follow a vegan Mediterranean diet, it’s even more critical to ensure that you’re eating a wide variety of plant foods to meet your protein needs. Most sources of plant foods – except soybeans, tofu, and tempeh – don’t provide all essential amino acids that we need for optimal functioning. Eating a wide variety of plant foods throughout the day makes sure that you get all essential amino acids that are required for healthy brain function, liver function, metabolic health, and muscle synthesis.
Rounding Out Your Mediterranean Meal Plan with Exercise
To get the most benefit from your diet plan to help reverse fatty liver disease and improve metabolic health, supplement your routine with regular exercise. Combined with healthy eating, regular cardio and strength-training helps lower blood pressure, improve insulin resistance, promote weight loss, and facilitate the reversal of fat accumulation in the liver.
Following the Mediterranean diet affords numerous health benefits, including helping reverse fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome. Foods rich in fiber, vitamins, healthy fats, and essential amino acids are crucial therapeutic aspects of the Mediterranean diet. By making small tweaks to the Mediterranean diet – like avoiding alcohol and limiting animal products – you can tailor the Mediterranean diet to be a perfect plan for reversing liver disease and associated metabolic conditions.