The Mediterranean diet is a renowned diet backed by decades of research that shows it improves brain health, reduces your risk of heart disease, and even lowers cancer risk (
Patterned after dietary habits in Mediterranean countries like Greece and Italy, it’s full of healthy nutrients from fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish (
Yet the Mediterranean diet is culturally representative of foods found in the Mediterranean.
Some of these foods are hard to get outside this region. If you’re from another locale, you may be wondering how to gain the health benefits of this diet without omitting your local and cultural foods.
If you’re from the Caribbean region — as I am — it may feel as if the cultural food gap is too wide to bridge. However, following a Mediterranean diet using local foods is easier than you think.
In this article, I’ll share science-backed swaps and recommendations to give the Mediterranean diet a Caribbean twist.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in leafy green vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. Extra virgin olive oil is a fundamental component of the diet (
You can eat moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy, while you should limit or avoid red meat, eggs, added sugar, saturated fat, and red wine (
Notably, sugary foods, red meat, and highly processed foods are all common in the Western diet and — if eaten in excess — associated with an increased risk of chronic disease (
Although emerging research indicates that saturated fats aren’t as harmful as once thought, this diet likely still helps you limit your intake of unhealthy types of saturated fat (
How to follow the Mediterranean diet
Keep these food lists in mind if you’re interested in the standard Mediterranean diet (
Foods to eat
- Olive oil: eat at each meal
- Non-starchy vegetables: minimum of 6 daily servings
- Fruits: 3 daily servings
- Whole grain breads and grains: 1–2 servings at each meal, up to 8 servings per day
- Dairy: 2 daily servings
- Fish: 5–6 servings per week
- Legumes and nuts: 2–4 servings each per week
Foods to limit
- Eggs and poultry: 2–4 servings each per week
- Sweets (table sugar, juices, sodas, ice cream): 1–2 servings per week, up to 4 servings per month
- Refined grains (white bread, crackers, pasta, chips): 1–2 servings per week, up to 4 servings per month
- Highly processed foods (fast food, processed sausages): 1–2 servings per week, up to 4 servings per month
- Red meat: 1–2 servings per week, up to 4 servings per month
- Red wine: in moderation
Current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend drinking alcohol in moderation, which means one drink per day for women and two per day for men (
The Mediterranean diet is notably rich in the following nutrients (
- fiber, which supports gut health
- immune-boosting vitamin C
- heart-healthy potassium
- healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
Research demonstrates that in the long-term, following this diet reduces the occurrence of heart events like heart attack and stroke by up to 30% after approximately 5 years (
Other research indicated that the Mediterranean diet may protect against certain cancers, including colorectal cancer, and the loss of nerve cells in Parkinson’s disease (
The standard Mediterranean diet is rich in extra virgin olive oil, leafy green veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. It’s also low in added sugar and saturated fat.
Many of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been attributed to high amounts of olive oil (
However, scientific research suggests that tying the health benefits of a diet to any single food or nutrient is misleading. The overall eating pattern matters most (
Furthermore, studies show that different foods can provide similar nutrients to those found in the Mediterranean diet (
This means that in the Caribbean — where olive oil is imported, making it costly and less accessible — you can continue to enjoy cultural foods that provide an array of health-promoting nutrients.
In fact, foods grown and eaten in the Caribbean are abundant in key nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet. As such, you can comfortably swap ingredients based on seasonality, cost, and preference.
Adapting diets to fit your local cuisine is a fundamental principle that guides my personal and professional approach to nutrition and health, so I confidently incorporate cultural foods and dishes into a balanced diet.
Here are some key swaps you can make for a Caribbean twist on the Mediterranean diet.
Ditch the olive oil for avocado
Oleic acid — the main monounsaturated fatty acid in olive oil — is said to give this oil most of its health properties (
Notably, the Hass avocado has been shown to have a ratio of oleic acid to saturated fat similar to that olive oil, plus similar contents of both fats (
Little information is available on Caribbean avocado varieties like Choquette and Hall. Yet, avocado — also called zaboca or pear in the Caribbean — is generally rich in monounsaturated fats and oleic acid, and it may reduce heart disease risk by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol (
Avocados are a seasonal fruit in the Caribbean. When they’re out of season, consider using other sources of oleic acid, such as avocado oil, olives, olive oil, and walnuts (
Although coconut oil is common in Caribbean cooking, it’s higher in saturated fats — which may increase LDL (bad) cholesterol — and isn’t a suitable replacement for olive oil. You should eat it only in moderation as part of a balanced diet (
Eat tubers in place of whole grains
Tubers — colloquially called ground provisions — are a staple in the Caribbean diet.
Sweet potato, cassava (yucca), dasheen (taro), eddoes, yam, and potato are eaten in meals like provision and saltfish and as a complement to game meat dishes, such as stewed agouti (a type of rodent), manicou (opossum), or other stewed meats and fish.
Tubers are underrated gluten-free sources of complex carbs like dietary fiber and starches. They also boast anti-inflammatory properties and may help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels (
Plus, ground provisions are good sources of essential nutrients — even in comparable or greater amounts than some whole grains in the Mediterranean diet, such as brown rice.
This chart compares 1 cup (100 grams) of raw taro root to 1/2 cup (100 grams) of uncooked brown rice (
|Nutrient||Taro, raw||Brown rice, dry|
|Carbs||27 grams||79 grams|
|Protein||1.5 grams||8 grams|
|Total fat||0.2 grams||2.7 grams|
|Fiber||4 grams||3.5 grams|
|Folate||6% of the daily value (DV)||4% of the DV|
|Vitamin E||16% of the DV||0% of the DV|
|Potassium||13% of the DV||5% of the DV|
|Phosphorus||7% of the DV||22% of the DV|
As you can see, taro is higher in fiber, folate, vitamin E, and potassium.
Other nutritious, starchy swaps for whole grains include breadfruit, plantains, and “green fig” (underripe banana) for their fiber, resistant starch, and mineral contents (
Other Mediterranean diet foods are easily adaptable to a Caribbean style of eating. Enjoy local varieties of these foods as suggested:
- 2 servings of non-starchy vegetables at meals: watercress, callaloo, pumpkin, carrots, and bell peppers
- 3 daily servings of fruits: five-finger (carambola, also known as starfruit), mango, West Indian cherry, and pommecythere (June plum)
- 1–2 servings of whole grains at meals: whole grain bread, sada roti, and cornmeal dumplings
- 2 daily servings of dairy: milk (in tea or coffee) and cheese
- 5–6 servings of fish per week: kingfish (mackerel), sardines, tuna, carite, and redfish
- 2–4 servings of legumes per week: lentils, black-eyed peas, channa (garbanzo beans), and peanuts
- 2–4 servings of eggs and poultry each, per week: chicken, turkey, and eggs
- 2–3 servings of sweets per week: kurma, tamarind ball, dark chocolate, and fresh juices
- 1–2 servings of red meat per week: pork, lamb, beef, goat, and wild meat (game meat)
- Red wine: in moderation
A Caribbean twist on the Mediterranean diet replaces olive oil with avocado and whole grains with ground provisions (tubers). You can also enjoy local varieties of fruits, veggies, legumes, fish, red meat, eggs, and poultry.
Here are a few specific meal ideas to kick-start your Caribbean-style Mediterranean diet.
Avocado, bread, and egg
Enjoy 1–2 slices of whole grain bread with 2–4 tablespoons of crushed avocado and a boiled egg for added protein.
This is a traditional Caribbean breakfast and is now popularly referred to as avocado toast.
Pelau, coleslaw, and avocado
Pelau is a one-pot meal made with caramelized meat (chicken or beef), rice, and pigeon peas.
Make half of your plate pelau and half vegetables like coleslaw or watercress, then top with two slices of avocado.
Ground provisions and fish
Make half your plate non-starchy vegetables like sautéed bok choy (also called patchoi), a quarter of your plate curried kingfish, and a quarter ground provisions of your choice, such as dasheen or cassava.
Add a slice of avocado for a source of healthy fat.
Caribbean dishes that go great with a locally adapted Mediterranean diet include ground provisions and fish, avocado toast with egg, and pelau with coleslaw and avocado.
The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in extra virgin olive oil, leafy green veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.
However, some of its staple foods are local only to the Mediterranean.
A Caribbean twist on the Mediterranean diet may include using avocado in place of olive oil and ground provisions (tubers) in place of whole grains. You should also focus on local varieties of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, red meat, eggs, and poultry.
Just be sure to keep portion sizes in line with those recommended on the Mediterranean diet.
Just one thing
Try this today: For a traditional Caribbean snack, stuff 3 prunes with 1–2 tablespoons (15–30 grams) of a natural nut butter of your choice. This treat is filling, low in added sugars, and acceptable for the Mediterranean diet.