The Mediterranean diet is the number one recommended dietary eating plan in the world. Its flexibility makes this way of eating sustainable and realistic. But what happens if you want to take a night off from making meals and eat out instead?
Don’t worry, you can!
In this article, we will cover what the Mediterranean diet is, its health benefits, simple tips when ordering out, and most importantly, the best fast foods for the Mediterranean diet.
What Is The Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet, as hinted in its name, originates from the eating habits of the people living in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea (Ferré). Its traditional description contains eating patterns of the Crete and is tied to olive cultivation in the Mediterranean region (2).
The diet consists typically of the following:
- lots of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds),
- olive oil as the main source of fat,
- low red meat intake, and
- fish and poultry in moderate amounts
The most distinct qualities of the diet include that it is mainly a plant-based diet, with high intakes of healthy fats like nuts and olive oil (3). As a bonus, olive oil is also listed as one of 39 foods that unclog arteries.
Why Is The Mediterranean Diet Healthy?
In comparison to other mainstream diets, it is considered to be a non-restrictive diet, since no food groups are eliminated. The emphasis is placed on what one can add to the eating pattern, as opposed to what one can take away or avoid.
The Mediterranean diet is well known for its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.
A landmark study called the PREDMIED study concluded that eating the Mediterranean way can improve blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, blood lipid profiles, inflammation, oxidative stress, and plaque build-up (4). This study followed over 7000 participants, for a long period of time.
Additionally, another excellent study called the LYON study showed that following the Mediterranean diet reduces the chance of a second heart attack or stroke (5).
Therefore, there is strong research to encourage following the Mediterranean diet to prevent and treat heart health.
Not only can it result in better heart healthy but also lower type 2 diabetes risk across many populations (6). And furthermore, following the Mediterranean diet can also assist reduced the risk of cognitive impairment (7).
How To Eat Out on The Mediterranean Diet
Ask For More Vegetables
A big component of the Mediterranean diet is including plant foods in your diet as much as possible. When eating take-out or at a restaurant, ask for extra vegetables in your meal. This is a super easy way to implement the Mediterranean diet into meals you already order.
For example, if you are ordering a burger from a fast food place, ask for extra lettuce and tomatoes and a side salad to add more fresh, plant foods to your meal.
Choose Whole Grains
Whole grains, in comparison to their refined counterparts (for example whole grain bread vs. white bread), have undergone the least amount of processing which means they offer the most nutrients.
Most restaurants and fast food places now offer whole grain options for their rice, bread, pasta, and crusts.
Here are some keywords to look for when ordering whole grains during your next meal out:
- Whole grain
- Whole wheat flour
- Whole rye
- Brown rice
Be wary of foods labeled “multigrain”, as they may not include whole grains, but instead signifies that it contains a variety of different grains.
Eat More Fish Or Seafood
The Mediterranean diet encourages a lower intake of red meat, so when possible, try to replace your beef with fish or seafood.
Fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, this includes salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, or anchovies. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce heart disease or stroke risk, improve triglycerides and reduce inflammation (8).
Furthermore, fish and seafood are low in saturated fat, a type of fat typically found in red meat that when consumed in large amounts can increase bad, LDL cholesterol.
Vegetarian Or Plant-Based Entrees
The Mediterranean diet comprises a rich variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, beans, and nuts, so next time you are out, try a plant-based vegetarian entree!
Some plant-based proteins you can look for on menus include:
You might have seen the term ‘legumes’ thrown around when people talk about healthy eating.
Legumes are a great source of a variety of nutrients, including protein, fiber, potassium, and unsaturated fatty acids (healthy fats!) Common examples of legumes are dried beans, peas, and lentils.
Eating legumes approximately 4 times a week was associated with a 14% reduced risk of coronary artery disease (9).
Choose Healthy Fats
The amount of fat we eat doesn’t have to be the enemy, but we do need to understand it is the type of fat that we consume that is most important.
Healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which include Omega-3’s. These are considered healthy fats because they help lower your risk of heart disease.
Nuts, seeds, fish, and olive oil would be the common high-fat foods in the Mediterranean diet.
If you’re ordering a salad, it is important to note that most restaurants don’t use olive oil because it is more expensive. Instead of using their premade dressing, ask your waitress for the olive oil and vinegar to be delivered to your table instead and make your own dressing.
Skip Sweet Drinks
Try to choose water to accompany your meals as opposed to purchasing pop or juice. This can help you get your much-needed fluids for the day, and reduce your intake of added sugars.
Too much added sugar can increase your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions like diabetes (10).
Keep a water bottle with you everywhere you go so you never run out of water to drink.
Cookies, pies, and cakes are all great in moderation. Serving sizes at restaurants are very large, so try sharing with a friend.
If you’re looking for alternatives to these sweet treats, opt for fresh fruits such as blueberries, bananas, or peaches.
Or if you find yourself craving the taste of pies and cakes, opt for a cappuccino or latte with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top.
Enjoy The Meal And The Company
A key component of the Mediterranean diet is the idea that eating is a shared experience. Eating with others, such as with family and friends, can be a great way to foster connection and belonging.
Engage in mindful discussion with your loved ones and ask about their day and share yours. This can decrease stress and increase the absorption of nutrients.
Avoid any distractions by putting your phone away and turning the television off. Stay present in the moment and enjoy food together.
Fast Food Options On The Mediterranean Diet
- Rolled and Steel Cut Oatmeal at Starbucks, Tim Hortons, and McDonald’s
- Whole Wheat Spinach, Feta, and Egg White wrap at Starbucks
- Yogurt from Tim Hortons
- Veggie Habanero Lime Loaded Bowl at Tim Hortons
- Grilled Chicken Salad at Subway
- Mediterranean Vegetable Sandwich from Panera Bread
- Baja Grain Bowl from Panera Bread
- Chili from Tim Horton’s
- Tofu Burrito from Quesada Burritos and Tacos
- Fish Bowl from Barburrito
- Sweet Potato Quesadilla from Burrito Boyz
- Channa Masala from Tandoori Flame
- Dal Tadka from Bombay Bhel Restaurant
- Mixed Vegetable Korma from The Curry Bistro
Eating On The Road?
If you find yourself on a road trip or on the go, opt for purchasing food from the grocery store as the best form of fast food for the Mediterranean Diet.
Grocery stores carry a multitude of different items that fall under the Mediterranean diet. These items include:
- Hummus, paired with whole grain crackers or carrots
- Baba ganoush paired with pita chips
- Fruit that is fresh or frozen
- Unsalted nuts (peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds) paired with fresh fruit
- Canned salmon or sardines with no added salt
- Pre-made Greek salads
These items require little to no preparation and can be eaten on the road!
Mediterranean Diet At Restaurants: More Tips
Watch Portion Sizes
We know restaurants serve large serving sizes, usually larger than you would portion yourself at home. Being aware of and acknowledging large portion sizes is the first step to eating the Mediterranean way.
The second step is doing something about it.
Consuming large portions can make you feel nauseous, increase bloating, and cause indigestion.
So if you find yourself at a restaurant that serves large portion sizes, share with a friend. Be sure to also request an extra plate from your server to make it easier for you both to enjoy the meal.
An alternative to tackling big portion sizes is to save it for later. You don’t have to eat the whole meal in one sitting, ask for the other half in a take-out container before it arrives at your table. This way, you don’t have to waste your time thinking about saving half for later and instead focus on enjoying your meal.
Planning ahead is never a bad thing in any area of life, including your food.
Most restaurants have menus online. Take a few minutes before going out to eat to view the different options to find ones that fit the Mediterranean diet.
Key elements of the Mediterranean diet to look for are:
- color – are there any fruits, vegetables
- healthy fats – do they have nuts or olive oil
- whole grains – are there any high-fiber grains like brown rice or quinoa options
- plant-based – do they serve any tofu, beans, or legumes
- fish – choose these more often than poultry and red meat
Be Mindful When Eating
A key principle of the Mediterranean diet is to be mindful of what you eat. As mentioned before, whenever possible, try to make eating a shared, communal experience with your family and friends.
Avoid watching television or going on your phone while eating to not only connect with loved ones but to also connect with the food in front of you. This can allow you to appreciate the food you are eating and help pace yourself to listen to your hunger cues.
This non-restrictive eating pattern provides a diverse amount of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals beneficial to your health. Keeping these simple tips in mind, you can enjoy fast food and still follow the Mediterranean diet.
And if you are looking for heart-healthy meals to make at home, subscribe to my newsletter for a FREE 7-day heart-healthy meal plan to get you started on following the Mediterranean diet today.
This article was written by Chloe Camacho a University of Guelph Nutrition Student. Medically reviewed by Veronica Rouse, MAN, RD, CDE.