Updated: Feb 18, 2021
The Mediterranean diet is one of the most promising eating styles in 2021, according to the U.S. News & World Report (1). Being holistic, flexible, and easy to follow, this eating pattern hardly fits into the definition of a “diet.” This nutrition and lifestyle framework may be a great fit for busy parents looking for effective ways to inspire the family to make healthier choices.
What are the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for Kids and Families?
1. Fruits, vegetables and plants are the foundation
Opposite to the common animal-protein centered approach, the Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits and vegetables first. Therefore, any plate, bowl or glass (in case of smoothies), should be based on vegetables and/or fruit. This plant-oriented approach ensures that a child is getting the important vitamins and minerals needed to build and maintain a strong, healthy body.
2. Emphasis on whole sources of carbohydrates
Along with fruit and vegetables Mediterranean eating style is rich in whole carbohydrates from whole grains, beans, and legumes, which are all great sources of fiber. Fiber feeds our gut bacteria and help regulate blood sugar, hormones, and cholesterol levels in our bodies (2, 3). It also promotes regular bowel movement, increases satiety and aids in maintaining healthy weight for both children and adults (3).
3. Healthy fats are appreciated
This diet is liberal to fat as long as the majority of it is coming from healthy sources such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and fatty fish. Mono and polyunsaturated fats such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, help with fat-soluble vitamin absorption and are generally promoting healthy growth of a child (4).
4. Eating more fish and seafood is encouraged
Eating fish and seafood at least twice a week is one of the foundational elements on the Mediterranean diet (5, 6). Fish provides a good dose of high-quality protein along with vitamin D, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids. It's also thought that seafood can improve heart health, brain health, and vision (7). Fresh or water-packed tuna, sardines, salmon, trout, mackerel, herring are all great and healthy choices.
5. The flavor is an important component
Adding spices and herbs to dishes not only helps to enhance the flavor factor but may also lower the need for extra sodium intake. Win-win!
6. Dairy is a part of the equation.
It may seem that a dairy-free lifestyle is becoming mainstream these days but Mediterranean diet supports dairy consumption in moderation. Greek yogurt and a variety of cheeses such as ricotta, halloumi, and feta are all great sources of calcium and other vitamins and minerals (6).
7. It goes beyond nutritional recommendations.
Mediterranean diet is not strictly a “diet”, it is a style of eating and living with emphasis on nutrient-dense foods, regular physical activity, and joyful family times. Cooking most meals at home, prioritizing eating together as well as having more active time is aligned with the foundational recommendations (5). Therefore, finding creative ways to spend more family time outside by walking, playing, or even having a dance party is definitely a part of a Mediterranean diet (6). Important to keep in mind that the main part of this lifestyle is enjoyment of the process whether it is eating, cooking, dancing, or sharing the meal with others.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The ‘Mediterranean’ diet is a diet that originated in the 1960s that was inspired by the dietary habits of citizens in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy (8). Today it is one of the most popular diets, and in many ways, is the foundation of what is considered ‘healthful eating’. Mediterranean diet does not call for specific distribution of macronutrients or calorie intake. Rather than prescribing strict food guidelines, as many traditional "diets" do, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish, combined with an active lifestyle (5). Therefore, the Mediterranean diet may be one of the easiest to transition to since it is intuitive to follow and does not involve strict limitations. For this reason, it can be adapted by families with different lifestyles.
The foundation of the diet:
Fruits and vegetables
Healthy fats from sources such as nuts, legumes, seeds, olive oils, olives, and avocados
Seafood, fish (2+ times per week)
Variety of herbs and spices (oregano, mint, garlic, basil, cumin, fennel, and more!)
For hydration, water is always best, but it also emphasizes other choices such sparkling water, tea, coffee, and unsweetened beverages.
Mediterranean-inspired snacks for children
Yogurt with chia seeds, chopped apple, and cinnamon
Dry-roasted nuts and fruit.
Peanut butter/seed butter and vegetable sticks
Whole grain toast with avocado, cherry tomatoes, and sea salt.
Black olives and roasted almonds.
Hummus and a variety of crunchy raw vegetables such as baby carrots, celery, mini bell peppers, etc.
Whole-grain toast with almond butter and blackberries
What does science say?
The evidence supports the benefits of Mediterranean diet for both the adult and children population. Studies show that eating a diet similar to the traditional Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with reduced risk of a variety of health conditions such as metabolic syndrome, cancer, and mortality related to major chronic diseases (9-11). One of the most important features of the Mediterranean diet is the extent to which it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease (11). Studies also show that Mediterranean dietary pattern is inversely associated with childhood obesity (11).
Written by Evgeniya Rybalkina-Evans, dietetics intern 2021, student at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Macfarlane S, Macfarlane GT, Cummings JH. Review article: prebiotics in the gastrointestinal tract. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2006;24(5):701-714. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2036.2006.03042.x
Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH Jr, et al. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009;67(4):188-205. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x
Benton JM, ed. Fats (for Parents) - Nemours KidsHealth. KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/fat.html. Published January 2017. Accessed February 4, 2021.
Davis C, Bryan J, Hodgson J, Murphy K. Definition of the Mediterranean Diet; a Literature Review. Nutrients. 2015;7(11):9139-9153. Published 2015 Nov 5. doi:10.3390/nu7115459
Bach-Faig A, Berry EM, Lairon D, et al. Mediterranean diet pyramid today. Science and cultural updates. Public Health Nutr. 2011;14(12A):2274-2284. doi:10.1017/S1368980011002515
Benton JM, ed. Fats (for Parents) - Nemours KidsHealth. KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/fat.html. Published January 2017. Accessed February 4, 2021
Tognon G, Hebestreit A, Lanferet A, et al. (2014). Mediterranean diet, overweight and body composition in children from eight European countries: Cross-sectional and prospective results from the IDEFICS study. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases 24:205-213
Martínez-González MA, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, et al. Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Insights From the PREDIMED Study. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2015;58(1):50-60. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2015.04.003
Becerra-Tomás N, Blanco Mejía S, Viguiliouk E, et al. Mediterranean diet, cardiovascular disease and mortality in diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies and randomized clinical trials. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020;60(7):1207-1227. doi:10.1080/10408398.2019.1565281
Estruch R, Martínez-González MA, Corella D, et al. Effects of a Mediterranean-style diet on cardiovascular risk factors: a randomized trial [published correction appears in Ann Intern Med. 2018 Aug 21;169(4):270-271]. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145(1):1-11. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-145-1-200607040-00