The Mediterranean diet is well known for its multitude of health benefits, but can it be followed by vegetarians with the same results?
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
This fresh food focused diet, based on the eating patterns of countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain situated on the Mediterranean coast, is widely regarded as one of the healthiest diets in the world. It has been shown to improve heart health and reduce risk of diseases such as Diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In addition to this it is thought decrease risk of some cancers and has also shown some success as a weight loss diet. In short, this eating style comes highly recommended by health professionals worldwide and it doesn´t hurt that it includes a generous splash of red wine now or again either.
The ‘Med’ diet is established as being beneficial to us all, not only in scientific studies, but in the low rates of chronic disease and long life spans of the traditional followers. It is vastly superior for our health than the average western diet which is usually high in unhealthy fats, salt, processed foods and sugar.
The Med diet is based mainly on an abundance of fruit and vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. Protein is sourced primarily from nuts, fish, seafood and poultry and a large quantity of legumes and beans. Eggs and dairy products are eaten, but less often and in smaller quantities, (although the level is still sufficient to obtain the required calcium for most people). Red meat is consumed infrequently, as are saturated fats, salt and refined sugar. This eating style results in a diet that is rich in nutrients, high in heart protective Omega three fatty acids and antioxidants, low in saturated fat and high in fiber. A winning combination to fight disease as well as combat weight gain.
Is it suitable for vegetarians?
Obviously there are some foods that feature as a key part of the Mediterranean diet which must be avoided by vegetarians, namely fish, seafood and poultry. So, can this diet be followed by vegetarians, excluding meat and fish products and still be beneficial? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. In fact this diet is one of the easiest to modify to suit vegetarians due to its large dependence on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and legumes as the core food groups. Unlike the majority of popular diets, med diet is based on a balanced approach to eating which does not exclude any key food groups, nor does it focus on high protein or low carbohydrate. Vegetarians can breathe a sigh of relief that here is one diet that should fit to and enhance their normal eating pattern easily and doesn’t involve finding a vegetarian alternative for steak and bacon.
How to adapt the Mediterranean diet for vegetarian eating.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on the following principles, most of which can be easily followed by vegetarians.
- Following a diet based primarily on plant foods, for example fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
- The use of healthy, unsaturated fats such as olive and canola oil, rather than saturated ones such as butter.
- Limiting red meat consumption to a few times a month
- Replacing salt with other herbs and spice for flavoring
- Having at least two meals a week that feature fish or poultry
- A moderate intake of red wine- although this is an optional principle and it is not recommended that you start drinking if you don´t already.
All the above principles should be simple for a vegetarian to follow, with the obvious exception of the fish, seafood or poultry twice a week or more and the complete exclusion of red meat. Vegetarians should simply increase protein from other sources to ensure they are meeting their requirements. Snacking on unsalted nuts, throwing an extra handful of chickpeas into a veggie dish or substituting with vegetarian proteins such as tofu should ensure these needs are met. Eggs and dairy can also be used to increase protein although should not be an everyday substitute in order to stay in line with the Med diet guidelines.
Of course, if fish and seafood are excluded from the Mediterranean diet the benefits of the heart protective omega 3 fatty acids will be eliminated. Vegetarians should try to increase their intake of these ‘good fats’ from plant sources such as walnuts and flaxseed (linseed), which contain high levels of these fats. Other good sources include canola and soya oil, pumpkin and sunflower seeds and even a small amount in leafy vegetables like spinach, although it should be noted that absorption of omega three fatty acids from plant sources is significantly less than from fish. If you really want to get the quantities needed for protective effects, supplements, such as those derived from microalgae, may be necessary.
The Advantages of a modified ‘Veggie Med’ diet.
This diet is fantastic for vegetarians, since it is already based on food groups that should be key in a well planned vegetarian diet. The base of legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds and whole grains should really be present in any healthy vegetarian diet as alternative protein sources. Many vegetarians do not take advantage of these fantastic protein and nutrient sources, choosing to focus more on eggs and dairy products, or simply omit meat from dishes without a substitution. This can lead to a boring, unvaried diet, often low in nutrients including protein, iron and vitamins. Vegetarians may often consume more dairy products and eggs than are recommended for the med diet in order to maintain protein levels without meat or fish. However, by using Mediterranean style recipes, they are likely to increase their intake of plant based proteins, meaning they are less reliant on these other vegetarian sources and ensuring their protein intake doesn’t fall short of requirements.
The veggie Med diet may also increase iron intake. Low iron is often a problem for vegetarians, as the highest iron containing foods are excluded from their diets and iron in plants is not taken up by the body as effectively as from meat sources. To obtain iron from plants sources such as grains, legumes, and green leafy vegetables like spinach, it is important to eat them in conjunction with a food containing vitamin C. This increases absorption and uptake into the body. As many Mediterranean recipes feature these foods, together with high vitamin C foods like tomatoes and citrus, iron absorption from these sources is increased.
A normal Mediterranean diet can be easily followed by vegetarians with the majority of the same health benefits. In fact following this eating style and trying new recipes and cooking techniques in the Mediterranean region is likely to provide vegetarians with a larger variety of tasty meals and food ideas without meat. Vegetarian eating can sometimes be limiting and Mediterranean style dishes based on tomatoes, herbs and olive oil can provide a welcome change to heavier cheese or egg dishes. This cooking style uses age old flavor combinations to produce satisfying, nutrient rich meals.
The best thing about this diet is it is not so much a diet, but a style of eating. There is no counting of calories, no foods groups that are completely excluded and no supplements or meal replacements. This is not a diet created by cash hungry business people, but a natural, healthy way of eating that has been shown over history to benefit our health.