- I’ve followed the Mediterranean diet for 20 years while living in Crete, Greece.
- You don’t need to cut out food groups and snacks.
- Olive oil and lemons are Mediterranean-diet staples you should embrace.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
This plant-heavy diet, which involves eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil, is believed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve brain function, and increase life expectancy.
With a focus is on seasonal foods, traditional options, and local products, this power-packed way of eating has become increasingly popular, so here are my 9 secrets for following and sticking to it:
Your mindset is as important as what you eat
Here in Crete, “siga siga,” which translates to “slowly, slowly,” is not just something commonly said, it’s a way of life.
Meals can last for three hours, and I siesta from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. most days and then often spend my evenings drinking coffee and chatting with friends.
A laid-back pace of life is just as important as eating well, so make sure to surround yourself with people and take the time to enjoy your food.
Snack when you’re hungry
A common misconception is that you can’t snack while embracing a new diet, but in Crete, I’ve found that munching is welcome at all hours of the day.
Although potato chips and sugary drinks aren’t a kitchen staple of mine, I regularly enjoy cucumbers chopped into bite-sized chunks, tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, and crunchy dakos, whole-wheat, open-face sliders drizzled with olive oil.
Use olive oil for everything
Saturated and trans fats may have adverse health effects, but I banished butter and margarine from my pantry years ago as a matter of taste.
These days, I make everything from carrot cake to mashed potatoes with olive oil. It’s not just because EVOO is a major component of the Mediterranean diet, but also it gives food a much richer flavor.
On top of its wholesome taste, this oil is rich in antioxidants that are said to help protect the body from cellular damage.
I also prepare herb-flavored options by bottling oil with fresh basil or rosemary sprigs. So when I’m hungry for a treat, I drizzle this tasty alternative over a few cubes of whole-grain bread served with fresh cucumber.
Don’t deny yourself the foods you enjoy
For me, the Mediterranean diet is not about denying yourself the foods you love — it’s about enjoying them in moderation.
Eating the occasional dose of poultry, eggs, and dairy is fine. After all, how could anyone resist a bowl of deliciously creamy Greek yogurt drizzled with local honey and topped with a handful of nuts?
I’ve noticed that meat is also on the menu in most Cretan homes, but since there’s not much room for larger animals like cows to graze on this arid atoll, a lot of people eat other options such as lamb or goat.
Plus drinking wine in moderation is a welcome accompaniment to the Mediterranean diet.
If life throws you lemons, use them
It’s great to eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats, but you should also make sure to fill your cupboard with lemons.
Like several of my neighbors, I have a lemon tree growing at the bottom of my garden, and I use this vitamin-C-packed fruit with just about everything.
You can add a wedge to your first glass of water in the morning, mix lemon juice with EVOO to pour over your salad, or squeeze a few drops into your chunky lentil-soup supper — I guarantee you’ll soon be hooked.
Swap out chocolate and cake for fruit and honey
I love whole grains and vegetables, but I sometimes find myself missing chocolates and cookies. But I’ve learned to curve my sugar cravings by adding plenty of fruit into my diet.
After a meal at a Cretan restaurant, you’ll nearly always be offered a bowl of sweet Bing cherries, a platter of juicy chilled watermelon, or a gleaming bunch of grapes picked fresh from the vine, depending on the time of year.
When I need a midmorning snack, I head straight toward the fruit basket, so I also make sure to stock my fridge with dried prunes and apricots.
Like most people I know, I have a busy life and don’t always have time to prepare healthy dishes. So my solution is to have a whiteboard that I use every Sunday to plan out my meals for the week.
Once I know what I’m eating each day, I prep some of the basic ingredients, like whole-wheat pastries, lentils, beans, tomato sauce, or chickpeas, and put them in the freezer.
Then when I want to cook one of the dishes on my list — such as my favorite Mediterranean lentil soup with sun-dried tomatoes, herbs, onions, and garlic — I just defrost my main ingredients and add the rest.
Don’t be afraid to forage your own food
There are as many as 300 different wild, edible greens in Crete, so foraging is a popular pastime.
When I first moved to Greece’s largest island, I’d see my neighbors coming home from the fields with bags full of greens. And soon enough, I learned to recognize dozens of these edible plants and how to prepare them, like lightly steaming and dressing them with a squeeze of lemon juice and drizzle of olive oil.
Foraging for food is a great way to eat mineral-rich greens and stay on your feet.
You might not find anise-scented fennel or wild oregano growing in your backyard, but dandelion, purslane, and sorrel are common finds — just make sure to harvest them in a non-polluted spot.
Don’t call it a diet
For me, the Mediterranean diet is not a fad, it’s a lifestyle choice that involves making the most of the foods that are available in a sustainable way.
While respecting the environment, you also learn to savor the flavors of sun-rich tomatoes, fiery garlic cloves, and tree-plucked lemons.
Once I started the Mediterranean diet, I never wanted to eat in any other way again.