There’s a lot to love about the Mediterranean region: the sun-kissed coastlines, the perfect weather, and of course, the food. Yes, it’s insanely fresh and tasty, but it’s also known for its heart-healthy ingredients and impressive physiological benefits. It’s no wonder the Mediterranean diet has been named the best diet around.

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Mediterranean, quinoa, egg, salad

So, what exactly is the Mediterranean diet? The overarching philosophy couldn’t be simpler: Eat well-balanced meals that are focused on real foods with an emphasis on produce and lean proteins. While the standard American food pyramid places fats in the topmost tier, the Mediterranean diet includes healthy oils in the bottom—and most important—portion, along with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

That just about sums it up. No calorie counting, no shutting out entire food groups. Just sensible, unprocessed, simply prepared but delicious food. Are you in? Here’s more on how and why to get started on the Mediterranean diet plan.

Besides the obvious reasons of being able to consume pasta, red wine, and some cheese, there are serious health benefits to eating like you’re living on the Mediterranean too.

It’s a heart disease fighter: Thanks to its emphasis on healthy, unsaturated fats from olive oil and seafood (and red wine!), the Mediterranean diet has been shown to prevent, or at least reduce the risk of, all sorts of heart ailments and their risk factors, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

It boosts brain health: By replacing red meats and refined sugars with whole grains, veggies, and lean proteins, the Mediterranean diet leads to lower deposits of beta-amyloid, a protein directly linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, in the brain than the standard American diet.

It’s good for the gut: All that extra virgin olive oil isn’t just benefiting your heart. The healthy fat’s antioxidants may also help gastrointestinal issues like inflammatory bowel disease and ulcerative colitis.

It’s realistic: As far as diets go, this is one of the least restrictive, most reasonable, and probably one of the more fun eating styles out there (umm, hummus and pita? Velvety tahini sauces? Grilled seafood? Sign. Us. Up.) Not only does it maintain variety in what you eat, but unlike other more-limiting diets that can make going out to restaurants difficult, the less-prohibitive nature of this one won’t wreck your social life. HUGE win.

What You Can Eat

  • Veggies. As many different kinds as you can find and as much of ’em as you want.
  • Fruits. Go bananas on berries, citrus, stone fruits, etc.
  • Olive oils: The Mediterranean diet practically makes this healthy fat a whole food group on its own, but don’t forget about avocados too.
  • Grains. Whole grains, to be exact. And while bread, rice, and pasta are acceptable, switch things up with traditional Mediterranean grains like bulgur and couscous.
  • Pulses: Beans and legumes are huge protein sources on this diet. Don’t limit yourself—everything from chickpeas to lentils to pinto beans is fair game.
  • Nuts and seeds: Gear up for a lot of tahini.
  • Eggs: The incredible edible is a great source of protein, especially for vegetarians on this diet.
  • Seafood: Especially fish particularly rich in heart-healthy fats, like salmon, sardines, and tuna.
  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, you get the idea.
  • Soy: Stick to non-processed forms of it, like tofu and edamame.
  • Herbs and spices: Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are just the beginning.Don’t forget dill, basil, saffron, and za’atar too.

What to Eat in Moderation

  • Dairy: Opt for cheeses and yogurts over milk, cream, or butter.
  • Red meat: We’re talking one to two times a month, if that, and more lamb than beef.
  • Natural sweeteners: Go for dates, honey, and maple syrup.
  • Alcohol: No, not endless tequila shots at the bar on Friday night. Think more in terms of a glass of red wine with meals rather than binge-drinking.
  • Processed foods: These sneaky sources of trans fats and preservatives include not only your store-bought cookies but also processed meats like sausages and deli meat.
  • Refined oils: Examples include vegetable, canola, rapeseed, corn, sunflower, and peanut oils.
  • Added and artificial sugars: Save the sweets and sodas (even the diet kind) for special occasions.
  1. Choose oil over butter.
    Meet your new BFF: olive oil. You’ll be cooking everything from veggies and eggs to fish and lean meats in this herby, healthy fat.
  2. Don’t eliminate all dairy.
    You may be saying “bye-bye” to butter and “so long” to sour cream, but you can incorporate yogurt and feta cheese (in moderation!) into your daily meals for calcium and protein.
  3. Eat all the produce and then some.
    If at least half your plate is piled with fruits and/or vegetables, you’re doing it very, very right.
  4. Limit meat.
    You don’t have to swear off bacon and steak for life or anything, but when it comes to proteins you’re eating on the regular, stick to oily fish like salmon and sardines, eggs, and pulses.
  5. Lay off the processed stuff.
    Preservative-laden pre-made meals, trans-fat-filled packaged chips and crackers, and artificially-colored sweets are the antithesis of the Mediterranean diet’s principles. Replace them with fresh or unprocessed foods, and we promise you won’t even miss ’em.
  6. Make food fun again.
    The Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle than a typical diet, and part of it is about viewing food as a way to relax or connect with others. The point isn’t just to eat real, whole foods, it’s also to enjoy the act of eating. Whether that’s savoring every bite on your own or lingering over a good meal with loved ones, remember: This is, above all, about finding the fun in food again.