The guidelines surrounding the Mediterranean diet emphasize foods high in omega-3s and healthy fats—and of course lots of fruits and vegetables. However, when you start Googling around for recipes, you'll often be directed to ideas for grilled salmon, couscous with shrimp and veggies, or big salad bowls topped with chicken, olives, and feta cheese. Which all sounds great—unless you don't eat meat. It's enough to make you wonder if it's possible to meet the requirements of the Mediterranean diet (and reap those health benefits) while sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Need more intel on the Mediterranean diet? Check out this explainer from one of our fav RDs:
"Part of what makes the Mediterranean diet so great is that it's so adaptable, so it's actually an easy one to follow even if you don't eat meat or animal products," says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, RD. Here, she gives tips on how to get your fill of the Med diet, the vegan or vegetarian way. She also points out some common mistakes many non-meat eaters make when trying this eating plan for the first time. Keep reading for everything you need to know.
Are there any Mediterranean diet-friendly proteins?
"Regardless of what eating plan they're asking about, the first question vegetarians always ask me is about protein," Moore says. Hey, when you don't eat meat or fish, getting enough can be tricky! "When you're vegetarian or vegan and following the Mediterranean diet, you want to prioritize foods like pulses like chickpeas and lentils," she says, adding that you should aim to get between 50 to 75 grams of protein a day.
Moore says chickpeas are particularly great because you can work them into virtually anything. "You can blend them into a hummus, incorporate them into a marinara sauce, [or] add them to quinoa or salads," she says. As for lentils, she reminds vegetarians that they aren't just for stews. "You can make them at the beginning of the week and then incorporate them into your salads and other meals," she says. And because it's 2019 and healthy food has gloriously become mainstream, you can even find lentil or chickpea pasta at virtually every grocery store.
"Nuts are another staple of the Mediterranean diet and a good protein source," Moore says. In addition to eating them as is, having a handful or two as a snack or incorporating them into salads for some crunch, she encourages vegetarians to get creative. "Experiment with nut-based cheeses or sauces," she says.
If you eat dairy, Greek yogurt is another protein source Moore recommends, which has twice the protein of regular yogurt. "That's something else you can work into sauces. Or it makes a great breakfast with some nuts and berries on top," Moore says.
What about getting enough healthy fats?
"The one difficult part of following the Mediterranean diet if you're vegan or vegetarian is getting enough omega-3 fatty acids," Moore says—since fish, one of the best dietary sources of omega-3s, are off the table. Fortunately, you're not entirely SOL.
Not only are nuts a good source of protein, but some nuts—namely walnuts—provide a plant-based omega 3 source (ALA). Moore notes, however, that since it's not the only healthy fat we need, she recommends vegans still supplement with an algae supplement.
"And then there's of course olive oil," Moore says, saying you can add a tablespoon or two to almost anything to really get more of those heart healthy benefits. "Avocado oil is another way to get your healthy fats, and it also adds a really nice creaminess too," she says.
The easy part: fruits, vegetables, and herbs
The Mediterranean diet recommends seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Moore says any and all will work here, encouraging people to go for what's in season and readily available. "Don't worry about prioritizing fruits and vegetables that grow in the Mediterranean region," she says. "Just pick what you like and what you can find." (If you need help diversifying your palette, you can always check out the #20veggieschallenge.)
She also encourages using herbs and spices so they don't get, well, boring; they also pump up the nutritional factor as most herbs are anti-inflammatory. "You could do garlic and greens, oregano and roasted vegetables, or even chili flakes to really add some bite," Moore says, giving a few examples.
Are there any common pitfalls for plant-based Med dieters?
While the Mediterranean diet is easier to follow than more restrictive-type eating plans, Moore says there are a few common mistakes vegans and vegetarians often make when first trying it out. One: Don't fill your plate solely with refined grains, like pasta. Yes, spaghetti is a common part of certain Mediterranean cuisines, but pasta should really be the side, letting the veggies, protein, and healthy fats be the stars.
"Iron is another nutrient many non-meat eaters can forget about," Moore says. "Leafy greens are a great source and they're better absorbed in the body when paired with vitamin C." (FYI: Vegetarians and vegans should be eating about 32 milligrams of iron per day to keep their body in tip-top shape.) Pro tip: Add spinach to pasta and marinara sauce. It will not only help the iron be absorbed, but it cuts down on the amount of refined grains while upping the vegetable content, too. And read up on these other high-iron vegetables to mix things up a bit.
"What's most important to keep in mind when following this diet is to try new things and find out what works for your lifestyle," Moore says. "That's really the key to having long-lasting success."
If you're looking for some vegetarian Mediterranean recipes to try, look no further than this winter salad with avocado and pecans and this sweet potato chili.
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