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How to lose weight on the Mediterranean diet

While it isn’t intended to be a weight-loss plan, following the diet may be a realistic and sustainable way to lose weight.
Illustration of wine and grains on scale
Pulses, a primary protein eaten on the Mediterranean diet, are shown to improve weight-loss results.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

The Mediterranean diet has been trending for years. But it's no fly-by-night fad. The Mediterranean diet isn't just a social media phenomenon — it's topped the list of expert-recommended food plans for decades. That's because eating a Mediterranean diet isn't based on short-term weight loss results — it's a way of eating that can shift your relationship to food entirely.

That being said, there is substantial evidence that the Mediterranean diet can help you lose weight. One study found that individuals who followed the Mediterranean diet for five years had lower abdominal fat and were less likely to gain weight than those who did not. But that doesn't meant that you have to wait five years to see a difference! Another study found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet for a year lost as much as twice the weight as people who followed a low-carb diet.

For a lot of people, though, the Mediterranean diet isn't an eating plan so much as it is a way of life. In fact, this style of eating really is a way of life in the places that border the Mediterranean Sea — like Greece. Since these locales are lush and tropical — great for agriculture — most of the foods included in the Mediterranean diet are plant-based foods.

The Mediterranean diet is packed with vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Many Mediterranean meals include some pasta and a healthy glug of extra virgin olive oil. Although it isn’t intended to be a weight-loss plan, following the Mediterranean diet can be an accessible and sustainable way to lose weight. Here’s how to use the Mediterranean diet to lose weight and why it works.

Why the Mediterranean diet may help you lose weight

The types of foods included on the Mediterranean diet are both healthful and beneficial for weight loss. Since it's a plant-centered diet, it's high in fiber, and studies suggest that eating plenty of fiber may aid in weight loss and help you stick to your diet. A review of findings from 62 studies found that fiber intake was linked with weight loss and improvements in waist circumference, even when participants weren’t directed to reduce their calorie intake. Some of the specific reasons that the Mediterranean diet may encourage weight loss include:

Whole grains and legumes fill you up

While many weight-loss diets restrict grains, they’re a foundational food on the Mediterranean diet, and for good reason — eating grains may promote a healthier body weight. In a study involving 50 adults who ate either whole grains or refined grains (with a 6-week period in between these diets), participants reduced their calorie intake and lost weight on the whole-grain diet, suggesting that whole-grain foods are filling, so you may be naturally inclined to eat less.

Legumes, which are a primary protein eaten on the Mediterranean diet, may also improve weight-loss results. An analysis that pooled data from 21 clinical trials concluded that eating ¾ cup of these foods resulted in modest (but statistically significant) weight loss compared to those who didn’t eat them, even when calories weren’t intentionally reduced. Like whole grains, legumes are filling, so you might eat less overall when eating them regularly.

You'll load up on produce

The Mediterranean diet is also rich in fruits and veggies. In fact, they’re featured at every meal. Plant foods are rich in fiber and water, and you can eat generous portions since they contain few calories per bite. One study revealed that increasing veggie intake was consistently linked with reducing the rate of weight gain.

Pasta can be enjoyed in moderation

While pasta may not be considered a typical weight-loss food, it can be part of an enjoyable diet. However, as part of a Mediterranean lifestyle, pasta is eaten in smaller portion. In fact, it's usually considered a carrier for other Mediterranean diet staples, like veggies, extra virgin olive oil and seafood. Eating pasta in this fashion can improve your nutrition, and it will help you feel fuller than a plate of pasta alone.

You will limit sugar and processed food

Sugary drinks, like soda, aren’t a part of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Sugary beverages are strongly linked to weight gain and replacing them with water can reduce your overall calorie intake and promote weight loss.

Eating whole foods over processed ones is another reason the Mediterranean diet may help you reach a healthier weight. In one small randomized study that compared the two eating patterns, closely matching calories, protein, fat, carbs, sugar and fiber in both diets, participants ate an extra 500 calories a day on the processed-food diet. The extra calorie intake resulted in an average two-pound weight gain over the two-week study period. However, those same people ate less and lost a couple of pounds, on average, when following the whole-foods diet over a separate two-week period.

A Mediterranean diet food list

The Mediterranean diet is a flexible plan (read: nothing is off-limits), but it focuses on whole foods, mostly plants. Here’s an idea of what you’ll eat:

  • Fruits and vegetables, which are a main focus of meals.
  • Plant-based fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, olives, avocados and nuts.
  • Protein from legumes (legumes, beans and peas), seafood (ideally twice a week), poultry, eggs and Greek yogurt.
  • Whole grains like quinoa, oats, millet and farro, plus pasta (whether refined or whole).

Wine is a feature of the Mediterranean diet, and a glass is regularly consumed with meals. Though everything is included on the Mediterranean diet, sweets and red meat are eaten less often. For the sake of guidance, these foods are eaten about twice a month.

How to follow the Mediterranean diet for weight loss

The only thing you need to do to get started is to get organized and plan your menu. Here are some pointers:

  • Choose two breakfasts. Most people are used to eating breakfasts on repeat, so the only change here might be the type of breakfast you’re eating. Easy Mediterranean diet options include oatmeal, Greek yogurt and eggs. Be sure you’re eating fruits, veggies or a mix of both at breakfast.
  • Decide on two to three easy lunches and dinners. When you limit your options, you also narrow the number of ingredients you need to buy and the number of meals you need to cook. Using this strategy, you’ll make efficient use of your kitchen time, enjoy some variety, and get some nights off by incorporating leftovers. Each week, you can select different things to make so your menu continues to feel exciting and enjoyable.
  • Keep foods simple. If you’re a less experienced cook, choose low-fuss ingredients, like salad greens, frozen veggies, eggs, canned tuna and canned or boxed legumes (such as chickpeas and steamed lentils). Simple whole-grain options include quinoa, brown rice and oats.
  • Prepare your snacks. Whether you’re prepping them in advance or making them on demand, replace packaged snacks with whole-food snacks. Fast options include a piece of fruit with nuts or sliced veggies with hummus or olive tapenade.
  • Focus on the enjoyment of food. No food is forbidden on a Mediterranean diet. Instead, food is appreciated, and meals are designed to be enjoyed. This factor is often missing on weight-loss plans but is an important part of building a healthy relationship with food and sustainable eating habits.

Using the Mediterranean diet for weight loss means letting go of strict rules

When you think of the word diet, you might think of following a particular plan with a set of rules. These plans are alluring because they often promise quick weight loss, and they offer a set of food rules that can make your weight-loss journey feel less overwhelming in the short term. The flexibility of the Mediterranean diet is a big strength, but if you need a lot of structure or are feeling overwhelmed by deciding what to eat, then it might feel challenging at first.

If you’re used to eating a typical American diet with heavily processed food, fast food and sweets, it might feel drastic to replace your usual eating habits with mostly whole, plant-based foods. Plus, if your cooking skills are limited, you might not feel equipped to prep and cook Mediterranean-style meals.

You can overcome these drawbacks by working some Mediterranean diet recipes into your meal planning until you get the hang of it.

Mediterranean diet recipes

More about the Mediterranean diet