January 20, 2022


Free For All Food

12 things that surprised me after following the Mediterranean diet for over a year

a woman holding a plate of food: I'm excited to prepare and eat vegetables now. Jennifer Barton for Insider

© Provided by INSIDER
I’m excited to prepare and eat vegetables now. Jennifer Barton for Insider

I used to have a terrible diet that was heavy on processed foods, red meat, and sugar and low on vegetables and whole grains. Worse still, I would graze all day, snacking rather than sitting down to meals.

In July 2019, I made a radical change, cutting out all meat (except for fish) and adopting a Mediterranean diet filled with lots of colorful fruit and veg, whole grains, healthy fats, seafood, and occasional dairy. 

Read on for the 12 things that have surprised me the most since starting the diet. 

The variety is endless, so it hasn’t felt restrictive

I never thought I would be the type of person to find vegetables exciting, but now I get it.

I’m so energized and excited to plan, prepare, and eat my meals in a way that I never was before starting on the Mediterranean diet. 

Switching was a lot easier than I anticipated because there’s nothing boring or restrictive about eating this way – it never feels like deprivation.

I’ve discovered all of these amazing and delicious flavor combinations I never knew about. For example, I’m obsessed with golden and red beets with feta, spinach, and quinoa at the moment.

It’s a constant learning process, and I’ve never been a more eager student, experimenting with different herbs and spices on fish and vegetables to see which ones work best. Last week, I discovered rose harissa makes zucchini practically dance in my mouth.

My meals are also a lot more balanced, so I don’t need to snack like I used to. 

I don’t miss red meat at all 

a close up of a plate of food with a fork and knife: I used to eat a lot of red meat. Owen Franken/Getty Images

© Owen Franken/Getty Images
I used to eat a lot of red meat. Owen Franken/Getty Images

I used to love steaks, cheeseburgers, bacon, even raw red meat – one of my favorite dishes in restaurants was steak tartare.

I thought I’d really struggle without it, but amazingly, I don’t miss it at all. I’ve also realized that my body wasn’t made for red meat and that bloating and intense stomach cramps don’t need to accompany every meal I have. 

That was one of the near-instantaneous benefits I noticed when I started following a Mediterranean diet. I no longer had stomach pains after every meal and waistbands were no longer a source of massive discomfort. 

But I’ve really had to up my intake of legumes, like lentils and chickpeas, in addition to having fish and eggs a couple of times a week, to ensure I’m getting enough protein in my diet.

It’s easy to order out or make meals at home

a close up of food: It's easy to find Mediterranean-friendly options on takeout menus. Jennifer Barton for Insider

© Jennifer Barton for Insider
It’s easy to find Mediterranean-friendly options on takeout menus. Jennifer Barton for Insider

It’s true that preparing a dish, even a salad, requires more effort than opening a bag of chips. But I’ve been able to find some great, easy meals on the Mediterranean diet. 

I grew up in New York, so takeout is practically part of my DNA, and I’m happy to report that when I’m feeling lazy, or I have a craving for delivery, it’s as easy to order Mediterranean-diet friendly choices as it is to go for burgers or pizza.

A veggie moussaka is the most warming comfort food on a cold winter’s day.

Also, you can find precooked (or frozen) quinoa, lentils, brown rice, and more, so if you’re in a rush, you can have a healthy meal in minutes just by tossing a few ingredients together and heating them up.

It can be a cheap alternative

Seafood, fish, avocados, and certain types of olive oil can all be costly. Fortunately, it’s really easy to make budget-friendly swaps and still stick to a Mediterranean diet.

Canned tuna, beans, and vegetables as well as frozen fish are all cheaper alternatives. Plus making your own dips, like hummus, is easier and tastier than most supermarket alternatives.

Additionally, you can batch-cook and freeze meals to save cash and help them last longer.

You can also spend a lot on this food, especially if you go to local delis

One of the reasons it’s so easy to stick to a Mediterranean diet is that it’s so readily available today.

Within a few blocks of my place, there are two cafe-delis that stock everything from homemade baba ghanoush and hummus to cupboard and fridge staples like quinoa, feta, fresh fish, and Halloumi. They also sell premade salads, grilled vegetable dishes, soups, and more.

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It’s all totally delicious, but it’s also expensive.

Making your own dishes is infinitely cheaper, but it’s good to know you can get all of the essentials at your convenience – or run out and grab a healthy lunch when you simply don’t have the time to cook.

I’ve discovered so many new ways to make vegetables exciting

a plate of food with broccoli: Vegetables can be exciting if you know how to prepare them. Jennifer Barton for Insider

© Jennifer Barton for Insider
Vegetables can be exciting if you know how to prepare them. Jennifer Barton for Insider

I never understood how enjoyable it can be to eat a plate of rainbow food, but now I get it. Every meal I make is full of yellows, oranges, reds, greens, purples. 

One of the reasons I never appreciated the full potential of veggies is that I didn’t realize quite how versatile they were. I’d mainly have them raw, chopped up and thrown in a salad, or roasted before. And I’d often have leftovers from my weekly veg box that I wasn’t sure what to do with.

I now spend my days doing all kinds of exciting things with veggies – charring, puréeing, grilling, mashing, whizzing them into soups, stuffing them, steaming them, using them as toppings.

Instead of just mashing potatoes, I now turn butter beans or cannellini beans into a mash. Puréed beets have become a favorite dip when I want an alternative to hummus. And green pepper – which I really dislike raw – has become my top choice for an omelet filling.

There isn’t just one Mediterranean diet

I think one of the biggest misconceptions I had about the Mediterranean diet before I started following it was that it was pretty limited.

I hadn’t quite appreciated the sheer geographic variety of the foods available that were super easy to cook, wonderfully tasty, and all fell under the “Mediterranean” umbrella. 

Although a Mediterranean diet can be Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian, it’s also Turkish, Lebanese, Israeli, and Moroccan. For example, Chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks are a delicious introduction to the sheer variety of Mediterranean cooking.

I’ve learned about so many new ingredients and herbs, which have really helped me expand my cooking repertoire and add tons of flavor to dishes, without excess salt.

You can get sick of fish – I definitely did

a tray of food: I like fish, but eating it every day can get boring. Rachel Askinasi/Business Insider

© Rachel Askinasi/Business Insider
I like fish, but eating it every day can get boring. Rachel Askinasi/Business Insider

If you’re following a Mediterranean diet, then you can expect to eat a few servings of poultry or fish a week because, alongside eggs, it can be a great way to add some protein to your diet.

I’ve stopped eating white meat, but I love fish, eggs, and seafood. 

A couple of servings of fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel, or sardines is recommended on the Mediterranean diet, but last summer, after getting into a routine of salmon with vegetables every other day – because it’s just so easy to cook – I definitely hit a wall.

I was feeling bored and uninspired by fish. There really is such a thing as too much salmon. 

I tried cooking fish in different ways: steaming, barbecuing, frying, turning it into a paté. That helped, but in the end, I had to take a break for a couple of weeks and get my protein from eggs, chickpeas, and lentils instead. 

My kids and husband love it, too 

One of the biggest bonuses of this diet is how much my family is enjoying it.

My husband used to be a voracious meat eater, but he didn’t complain when I presented him with portobello “steaks” and butter-bean mash the other night. In fact, he loved it.

My kids – aged 10 and under – are already more knowledgeable about fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than I was in my 20s, and they’ve tasted everything from golden beets to passion fruit.

They’re also really excited to prepare dishes with me, so they’re benefiting by learning all about the cooking process and where these foods come from, too. 

Olive oil is now my favorite ingredient

a plate of food with broccoli: I use several different kinds of olive oil every week. iStock

© iStock
I use several different kinds of olive oil every week. iStock

Heavy salad dressings, packed with cream, mayonnaise, salt, and plenty of artificial ingredients, used to be a requirement for me if I was going to eat lettuce or spinach.

Now, I’m completely obsessed with olive oil, and I delight in making different types of dressings with it – throwing in some apple-cider vinegar, adding a spoonful of mustard, combining with sage leaves.

I use the cheapest kind for cooking and extra-virgin olive oil for a dressing base and fish marinade.

I even have garlic and chili varieties, which are amazing for drizzling over eggs or roasted veg.

My skin’s improved since I started the diet

My skin used to be angry, inflamed, and sore.

I have rosacea, redness, dryness, and acne, an unsightly combination that’s led me to shield myself from photos and hold my babies up in front of my face to cover up my ruddy cheeks and recurrent outbreaks. 

The Mediterranean diet is full of anti-inflammatory foods – Omega-3-rich fish, green vegetables, nuts, fruit, and olive oil – and although I didn’t start eating this way for my skin, I’ve been blown away by the results.

My skin has improved significantly over the past year and a half. It’s really calmed down and sometimes, very occasionally, it even gets that hint of a healthy glow from the inside.

It’s helped me to discover a love of cooking

The main reason I’m a Mediterranean-diet convert is that it makes me feel good, inside and out. 

I have a healthier and happier relationship with food now. I like that I know what I’m feeding myself and my family, and I enjoy cooking in a way I never did before. 

As someone who never learned how to cook growing up, I never thought chopping vegetables or sprinkling herbs into a pan would be one of the activities I enjoy doing with my family.

Making this lifestyle change hasn’t just expanded my repertoire of ingredients and dishes, it’s helped me discover the simple pleasures that cooking and eating well can bring.

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