The Mediterranean diet is a popular eating pattern that has been widely embraced and promoted by doctors and dietitians because of its many health benefits. Research has shown it may help prevent heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
If you don’t enjoy staple Mediterranean foods or if you trace your cultural roots back to a completely different part of the world, however, you may not think the Mediterranean diet is the right eating plan for you. But dietitians say that it’s the eating pattern that counts, more than the specific foods you choose. And, of course, being physically active and enjoying social connections are not limited to one culture.
Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, the nutrition nonprofit that introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid to Americans in the early 1990s, says the Mediterranean diet can easily be re-created with foods that aren’t from the Mediterranean region. For example, you can replace staples such as tomatoes, chickpeas and whole wheat with different vegetables, beans and grains to compose an equally nutritious diet. What matters most is choosing a variety of foods that will provide your body with the nutrients it needs for optimal health, and cutting back on highly processed foods.
“I find that using the language ‘Mediterranean diet’ can be construed as a recommendation to eat ‘Mediterranean food,’ ” says Krista Linares, a dietitian from Los Angeles. “I primarily work with Latino clients who receive a lot of inaccurate messaging about their heritage foods being unhealthy, and positioning another cuisine as the primary example of a healthy diet can reinforce this message. The truth is that all cultural cuisines have the potential to be health-promoting.”
Cordialis Msora-Kasago, founder of the African Pot Nutrition in Menifee, Calif., agrees. “When someone looks up information on heart-healthy foods and sees only images of Mediterranean foods, they start to believe that their cultural foods can't be included in a heart-healthy plan.” She says this may lead people to give up on healthful eating or follow eating patterns with foreign foods they don’t enjoy, which diminishes their cultural identity.
“People have different tastes, cultures, preferences and access, and a sustainable health plan takes those elements into consideration, says Msora-Kasago, who adds that while the Mediterranean diet has been extensively studied, other traditional diets are now being researched too.
For example, one study looked at heart health in Puerto Rican adults who ate a Mediterranean-style diet, but with traditional Puerto Rican foods, such as root crops, fish, legumes and oatmeal. The researchers found that they had lower levels of inflammation and less insulin resistance (a precursor to Type 2 diabetes).
And studies show that the traditional Nordic diet from Denmark, Finland and Sweden can also protect heart health and reduce inflammation, even though canola oil replaces olive oil and rye is favored over wheat. The diet emphasizes vegetables, berries and fish, and is low in red meat, sweets and ultra-processed food.
So, how can you make the Mediterranean diet pattern relevant for the foods you like? Start by understanding the pattern, and swapping out foods you don’t like for similar foods you prefer. As long as you have some fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, protein and healthy fats, plus very few ultra-processed foods, you’ll be set.
“I use the Mediterranean diet as a foundation, but quickly switch things around,” says dietitian Sylvia Klinger of Hispanic Food Communications, who has many Latino clients. For example, she includes more tropical fruits if her clients are Caribbean, and adds vegetables to favorite dishes such as arroz con pollo, enchiladas and empanadas. Mexican squash, chayote, prickly pear and jicama can replace (or be served alongside) Mediterranean-style vegetables such as zucchini.
In an East Asian diet, preferred vegetables may be Chinese long beans, bitter melon and water spinach, according to Toronto-based dietitian Trista Chan. And KeyVion Miller, a dietitian at the Miller’s Kitchen in Orlando, says her clients who are Black, Latino or from the Caribbean islands prefer plantains, yucca, cassava or callaloo (a side dish that can be made with a variety of leafy greens). “I tell them that these foods are still okay to eat because they are from plants and are full of fiber and other nutrients,” says Miller.
While the Mediterranean diet is largely wheat-based, you can easily switch it up with other whole grains, such as millet, teff, fonio, brown rice and quinoa, or choose whole grain corn (maize) for tortillas. If you opt for white rice instead of whole grains, Miller suggests eating beans alongside the rice, since the fiber in the beans helps counteract a potential blood sugar spike.
Protein can come from animal- or plant-based sources, though legumes are favored in the Mediterranean pattern. Chickpeas, black beans, lentils, tofu and peanuts can all be used in a variety of recipes. Fish, eggs and poultry are also part of the Mediterranean diet, but should be served less often than legumes.
To fit into the Mediterranean diet pattern, lard, ghee, butter and other animal fats should be replaced by liquid oil, but the oil you chose can vary depending on your preference and budget. While extra virgin olive oil is a beloved Mediterranean staple, you can also use avocado, peanut, canola or sesame oil if it’s more readily available.
An important consideration is capturing the flavor of favorite dishes by using the right herbs and spices. It doesn’t matter whether you choose basil, thyme, cilantro or cumin — they all add a nutritional spark to meals and help capture traditional flavors.
Of course, you don’t have to stick with foods from any one culture or geographical region. Mix it up and celebrate the cross-cultural diversity of America on your plate by trying any of the foods mentioned above.
“We are a melting pot of different ethnic groups in the U.S., so it makes sense to sometimes use the Mediterranean diet as a foundation, while knowing that it needs to be modified to meet the nutritional needs, cultural preferences and traditional dishes of different people,” says Klinger.
That’s why Oldways also publishes pyramids in addition to the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid to broadly reflect heritage foods from Asia, Latin America and Africa. These pyramids are a good place to start if you’re looking for some guidance on adapting the Mediterranean diet to meet your specific needs, or just want to spice up your usual meal rotation with some new dishes.
“Think about eating plants and don’t worry if they are not from the Mediterranean,” says Baer-Sinnott. “It’s about the pattern, even with different foods, different spices and herbs, and different ways of cooking.”
(The writer wishes to thank these dietitians who provided additional information for this article: Sarika Shah, Cara Harbstreet, Leonila Campos, Karolin Saweres, Jess Cording and Yovanee Veerapen.)