- The Mediterranean diet can include some dairy in moderation.
- Choose foods from the region, like feta and Parmesan cheeses.
- Hard cheeses and Greek yogurt are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals.
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The Mediterranean diet is popular partly due to its flexibility. You don’t have to cut out carbs or avoid fatty foods entirely — instead, this way of eating involves lots of fruits and vegetables, along with healthy options from the other food groups.
The diet is ranked among the healthiest eating plans out there, offering not only weight loss potential but also benefits to the heart and brain.
But the Mediterranean diet can feel more like “a basic guide for healthy eating” than an actual diet, Stephanie Ashe wrote for Insider after trying it for a week.
Although Ashe enjoyed the freedom that came with the relatively unrestricted eating plan, she hit some walls when she wasn’t sure if she should eat a certain food or not.
Dairy, for instance, is only vaguely addressed in Mediterranean diet guidelines. Compared to the Western diet, the Mediterranean way of eating doesn’t include milk, cheese, and yogurt as a major food group.
But some guidelines, such as Mayo Clinic’s heart-healthy Mediterranean eating plan, say you can “enjoy some dairy,” namely low-fat Greek yogurt and a variety of cheeses.
Insider spoke with a registered dietitian about how to choose healthy dairy products that fit into a Mediterranean diet.
Choose dairy products from the Mediterranean region
Dairy products native to the Mediterranean region, such as Greek yogurt and feta cheese, not only fit in with the concept of the diet but are also packed with nutrients.
Other relatively healthy cheeses from the region include Manchego, Parmesan, and Brie, Kris Sollid, RD, told Insider.
Harder cheeses tend to have more protein and less fat, so the Parmesan may be a healthier option than the Brie. Parmesan cheese is also rich in vitamins and minerals, and it’s actually lactose-free.
Sollid, the senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, said while you shouldn’t eat dairy as often as fruits and vegetables, it’s OK to have some cheese or yogurt most days.
Opt for nutrient-dense foods, like Greek yogurt
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating foods in their most nutrient-dense forms, which makes Greek yogurt a particularly good option for those seeking protein.
“Compared to regular yogurt, Greek yogurt has been strained multiple times so that the concentration of the protein is higher,” Sollid told Insider.
Greek yogurt also contains lots of vitamin B12 and calcium, which help with brain function and bone growth, respectively. Like regular yogurt, it’s rich in probiotics, or good bacteria that can benefit your digestive and immune functioning.
However, flavored yogurt is full of added sugar that offsets the nutrients with empty calories. Sollid recommended opting for a plain Greek yogurt instead.
Don’t go overboard with dairy — cap it at 2 cups a day
Your plate can include some dairy, but should still feature mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seafood.
To really reap the health and weight loss benefits of a Mediterranean diet, you should cap your dairy intake at around two cups a day, Sollid said.
That could mean a serving of Greek yogurt with breakfast and a bit of cheese as a snack, for example. An ounce of cheese is typically around the size of a pair of dice.
While that might not sound like very much to dairy lovers, a key principle of the Mediterranean diet is eating in moderation.
“Principles of eating not overeating, or eating until you’re comfortable, those kinds of things are more a part of the eating philosophy of those Mediterranean cultures,” Sollid said.