A vegetarian’s guide to the Mediterranean diet

We hear a lot about the health benefits of the plant-based and seafood-rich Mediterranean diet. But can you follow it if you’re not a fan of fish?

Several studies have associated the Mediterranean diet with reduced bad (LDL) cholesterol, risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Some studies have even linked it to improved mental health – all of which is why many experts repeatedly promote it as a healthy option.

While there are several variations of the diet, they share some common basic guidelines.

They include:

  • Olive oil is the main added fat
  • Eat vegetables with every meal
  • Eat legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Eat at least two servings of fish a week, ideally oily fish
  • Eat red meat or chicken not more than once a week
  • Eat fresh fruit daily, and dried fruit and nuts as snacks or dessert
  • Eat yoghurt daily, but cheese in moderation
  • Eat wholegrain breads and cereals with meals
  • Drink wine in moderation and always with food
  • Sweets or sweet drinks are for special occasions only

Accredited practising dietitian Felicity Curtain says if you’re looking to incorporate more of these food types, the Mediterranean diet is an ideal starting point.

As well as high levels of healthy, plant-based foods, it’s easy to comply with because it’s so palatable.

But if much of the nutritional and health value is derived from fish, how can vegetarians best approach the diet?

Mediterranean for vegetarians

What vegetarians need to know about the Mediterranean diet

Avoiding meat is not a big issue because the diet limits it to one serving a week, says Felicity.

But replacing the recommended two servings of fish a week requires a little more thought.

Eating no meat or seafood can mean lower levels of protein, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12 and calcium. (Sardines, an oily fish type recommended in the diet, is high in calcium.)

“With seafood the main thing you will be missing is the Omega-3 fatty acids,” Felicity says.

What vegetarians can eat on the Mediterranean diet

Felicity says vegetarians should bump up foods like legumes – such as chickpeas, beans and lentils – and nuts and seeds, particularly walnuts and flaxseeds.

Chia seeds, soy oil and avocado are also rich in Omega-3, while green vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli, as well as beans, nuts and seeds are all rich in calcium.

Felicity, of the Dietitians Association of Australia, suggests also considering foods fortified with Omega-3, such as eggs, breads and some breakfast cereals, if you feel you’re still short on those healthy fats.

While it’s hard to “mimic 100 per cent the nutritional benefits of foods like fish”, nuts and seeds are a good substitute, and Felicity suggests including them in stir fries or toasting them and scattering them into salads.

She says you may also consider taking an Omega-3 supplement, such as a fish oil based on micro algae, which meets the criteria for a vegetarian diet.

Find delicious and healthy vegetarian and vegan meal inspiration in our recipes section.

Written by Mike Bruce.