The Mediterranean Diet Focuses on Lean Sources of Protein — Here's Exactly What That Means

POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

Protein is an essential part of any diet, including the Mediterranean diet. While it's primarily plant-based, you actually can (and should!) have meat on this healthy eating plan. To fully reap the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, however, you'll need to be mindful of your choices.

First, let's talk about why protein deserves a spot on your plate. "Protein is especially important because it aids in the production of enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies throughout your body," Mary Claire Shurina, MS, RD, LD, told POPSUGAR. "It also helps with the growth and repair of cells within our hair, skin, muscles, bones, and internal organs." Basically, protein plays a pretty important role in a lot of the things your body is doing behind the scenes.

While no foods are entirely off-limits on the Mediterranean diet, you do want to limit proteins like beef and pork to no more than one serving per week. "Saturated fat is found in high levels in butter, pork, beef, lamb, and processed meats like bacon and sausage," Mary Claire explained. "Excessive intake of saturated fat is associated with higher risk of chronic illness and certain types of cancer."

This is one reason the Mediterranean diet is linked with a lower occurrence of disease, because unlike some other diets, it emphasizes lean sources of protein. Here's what to look for during your next shopping trip.

1. Fish and Seafood

Fish and other seafood like shrimp and scallops are probably the most common proteins on the Mediterranean diet. In addition to providing protein, some fattier varieties of fish are also healthy sources of omega-3 fatty acids. "These fats are especially beneficial for brain and heart health," Mary Claire told POPSUGAR. When seeking out seafood, she recommends looking for salmon, sardines, mackerel, and albacore tuna to get your fill of protein and healthy fats.

2. Poultry

Poultry typically includes chicken, turkey, and duck, but can be any type of fowl you enjoy. Most poultry is relatively lean and has "low levels of saturated fat compared to red meat and pork," Mary Claire said. On the Mediterranean diet, you want to increase consumption of unsaturated fats and limit consumption of saturated fats, so chicken breast or roast turkey can make a great addition to your meals.

3. Eggs

Eggs are another excellent source of protein because they are also packed with additional vitamins and minerals, according to Mary Claire. When you're making that veggie-filled omelet, "don't skimp on the yolks," she said. "Egg yolks are rich in vitamins A and D and certain antioxidants that are beneficial for eye health."