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Can you eat spaghetti sauce on the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest eating patterns in the world. It emphasizes eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. The diet also includes moderate amounts of fish, seafood, eggs, poultry, yogurt and cheese. Red meat is limited to a few times a month. Wine can be consumed in moderation with meals. The Mediterranean diet has been linked to many health benefits including reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

But what about spaghetti sauce? Can this beloved pasta topper fit into the Mediterranean dietary pattern? Keep reading to find out.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is inspired by traditional eating patterns in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea like Italy, Greece and Spain. There is no one “Mediterranean diet” but most versions share these key characteristics:

  • High intake of extra virgin olive oil – used for cooking and dressing foods
  • Liberal use of herbs and spices – to flavor dishes instead of salt
  • High consumption of vegetables – all types especially leafy greens like spinach
  • Fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert
  • Moderate amounts of nuts and seeds
  • Legumes eaten several times per week – beans, peas, lentils
  • Whole grains instead of refined grains
  • At least 2-3 servings of fish and seafood per week
  • Moderate poultry consumption – chicken, turkey, eggs
  • Dairy products consumed daily to weekly – yogurt, cheese
  • Red meat only a few times per month
  • Moderate alcohol intake, normally with meals – typically wine

This dietary pattern provides plenty of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory fats, and fiber which are thought to be responsible for its health promoting effects.

Key benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Many studies have found that following a Mediterranean style diet is linked to better health outcomes including:

  • Lower risk of heart disease: The diet has been associated with improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood vessel function and reduced inflammation – all factors that impact heart disease risk.
  • Reduced risk of diabetes: The combination of plant foods, healthy fats and low sugar intake can help improve insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood sugar levels.
  • Decreased inflammation: The anti-inflammatory effects of foods like olive oil, fish, fruits and vegetables may lower risk of chronic inflammation related diseases.
  • Improved cognitive health: The antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet may protect the brain and reduce dementia.
  • Cancer prevention: The abundance of antioxidants in plant foods and healthy fats may inhibit tumor growth.
  • Longer lifespan: Mediterranean diet adherence has been linked to increased longevity.
  • Weight loss: High intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can support healthy weight maintenance.

Clearly, following a traditional Mediterranean way of eating provides impressive benefits for overall health and longevity.

What are the guidelines for the Mediterranean diet?

There is no single “Mediterranean diet” but most versions share these meal plan guidelines:

  • Eat primarily plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Replace butter with healthy fats like olive oil and canola oil.
  • Use herbs and spices to flavor foods instead of salt.
  • Limit red meat to only a few times per month.
  • Eat fish and poultry at least twice a week.
  • Enjoy dairy products in moderation, mainly yogurt and cheese.
  • Eat eggs weekly.
  • Drink red wine in moderation, normally with meals.
  • Have sweets and desserts infrequently.

No food groups are completely off limits. The focus is on eating the right portions and proportions of each food category.

What foods are encouraged on the Mediterranean diet?

These foods have a starring role in the Mediterranean diet:

  • Vegetables: All types especially leafy greens, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, etc.
  • Fruits: All fruits including berries, melons, citrus fruits, stone fruits, pomegranates, figs, etc.
  • Whole grains: Whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats, barley, whole grain pasta.
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, peanuts.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds.
  • Herbs and spices: Garlic, basil, mint, oregano, cinnamon, pepper, parsley.
  • Extra virgin olive oil: Used as the main cooking fat and dressing ingredient.
  • Yogurt and cheese: Mainly consumed from goat or sheep milk.
  • Fish and seafood: Salmon, tuna, sardines, shrimp, mussels.
  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, duck, eggs.
  • Wine: Moderate intake with meals, normally red wine.

These nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats like omega-3s.

What foods should be limited on the Mediterranean diet?

These foods should be eaten less frequently when following a Mediterranean style diet:

  • Red meat: Only eat a few times a month.
  • Sweets: Limit to occasional treats.
  • Refined grains: Opt for whole grains instead of white bread, pasta, etc.
  • Trans fats: Avoid fried and processed foods high in unhealthy fats.
  • Added sugars: Reduce intake of sweetened beverages, candy, baked goods.
  • Processed foods: Limit pre-packaged snacks, meals, frozen pizza, etc.
  • Salt: Rely on herbs and spices to flavor food instead of table salt.
  • Butter and margarine: Use olive oil or canola oil instead.

Decreasing these foods helps reduce calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar intake for better health.

Is pasta allowed on the Mediterranean diet?

Pasta is definitely allowed on the Mediterranean diet. As an Italian staple, pasta is considered part of the traditional Mediterranean cooking pattern.

However, there are some guidelines for eating pasta the Mediterranean way:

  • Stick to whole grain pasta options like whole wheat or spinach pasta.
  • Keep portion sizes to 1-2 cups cooked pasta.
  • Enjoy pasta as a side dish rather than the main focus of your meal.
  • Accompany pasta with lots of vegetables like in a pasta primavera.
  • Choose tomato-based sauces over creamy, cheese-heavy sauces.
  • Don’t eat pasta every day. Keep it to 1-2 times per week.

Following these tips allows you to enjoy pasta occasionally while still adhering to the overall principles of the Mediterranean diet.

What type of spaghetti sauce is recommended?

When eating pasta the Mediterranean way, the type of sauce you choose matters.

Some tips for picking a Mediterranean diet friendly pasta sauce:

  • Opt for tomato-based sauces like marinara or arrabbiata.
  • Avoid cream-based sauces like alfredo or carbonara.
  • Select sauces made with olive oil, vegetables, herbs and spices.
  • Limit cheese-heavy sauces like four cheese or bolognese.
  • Steer clear of sauces made with butter, margarine or heavy cream.
  • Look for homemade style sauces without added sugar or preservatives.
  • Get sauces with no more than 3-4g sat fat per serving.

In general, tomato-based pasta sauces made from quality ingredients fit within Mediterranean diet guidelines for an occasional pasta night.

Nutrition profile of tomato-based pasta sauce

Here is the nutrition profile of a typical tomato-based pasta sauce:

Nutrient Amount per 1/2 cup
Calories 60
Fat 2g
Saturated Fat 0.5g
Sodium 480mg
Carbohydrates 9g
Fiber 2g
Sugar 5g
Protein 2g

Tomato-based pasta sauces provide lycopene, an antioxidant that gives tomatoes their red color. Lycopene has been linked to lower risks of heart disease, cancer, eye disorders and inflammation. The fiber, vitamins A and C are other nutritional benefits.

Just watch out for excessive sodium, added sugars or low quality oils in jarred pasta sauce. Check labels and choose organic, low sodium varieties made with olive oil.

Tips for making pasta sauce Mediterranean diet friendly

Here are some easy ways to give pasta sauce a Mediterranean diet makeover:

  • Use extra virgin olive oil instead of butter or cream.
  • Sauté onions, garlic, mushrooms and other vegetables in olive oil before adding tomatoes.
  • Flavor sauce with fresh or dried herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Add bell peppers, eggplant, spinach or broccoli for extra vegetables.
  • Use partwhole peeled tomatoes for a chunky garden fresh taste.
  • include lentils, beans or chickpeas for extra plant protein and fiber.
  • Stir in lean ground turkey or chicken for more protein.
  • Skip adding pancetta, sausage or other cured meats high in sodium and fat.
  • Limit pungent cheeses like parmesan – use a sprinkle versus 1⁄4 cup.
  • Finish with fresh basil, parsley or mint instead of dried herbs.

With just a few tweaks, you can turn an ordinary pasta sauce into one that fits into the Mediterranean diet.

Should you avoid meat sauces?

Traditional Mediterranean diets emphasize minimal use of red meat. Meat-based pasta sauces like bolognese that are heavy on beef and pork don’t align well with the principles of this eating pattern.

Meat sauces are higher in saturated fat and cholesterol compared to plant-based tomato sauces. The Mediterranean diet recommends limiting red meat to only a few times per month.

If you really want to include meat, here are some suggestions:

  • Use 90-95% lean ground turkey or bison instead of higher fat beef.
  • Add lentils, white beans or edamame for plant protein.
  • Go light on the meat – use 4oz or less per serving.
  • Load up on mushrooms, carrots, celery and tomatoes.
  • Use whole grains like whole wheat pasta, barley or farro.
  • Serve smaller portions – 1 cup versus heaping platefuls.
  • Include side salad with vinaigrette instead of garlic bread.

While meat sauces don’t fit the traditional Mediterranean diet plan, you can modify them to be a bit more diet-friendly. But it’s healthiest to keep these meals occasional.

Should you avoid cream-based sauces?

Cream-based pasta sauces like alfredo, carbonara and vodka sauce don’t align well with the principles of the Mediterranean diet.

These creamy sauces are typically loaded with:

  • Full-fat dairy like heavy cream, whole milk, cream cheese and sour cream
  • Butter or cream as the main fat instead of olive oil
  • Cheese like parmesan, romano and mozzarella
  • Minimal vegetables or other plant foods

All this adds up to higher amounts of saturated fat, calories and sodium compared to tomato-based Mediterranean diet recommended sauces.

To lighten up creamy pasta sauces:

  • Use part-skim milk or low fat Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream.
  • Mix in pureed cauliflower or white beans for a creamy texture.
  • Opt for light/low fat cheeses like parmesan or feta.
  • Flavor with spices instead of cheese – garlic, nutmeg, pepper.
  • Sauté plenty of vegetables like spinach or broccoli.
  • Drizzle with olive oil instead of coating in butter.

While creamy sauces can fit on occasion, tomato-based or pesto sauces are better Mediterranean diet options for regular pasta nights.

Can you eat pesto sauce on the Mediterranean diet?

Pesto is considered part of traditional Italian cuisine so pesto-based pasta sauces can certainly fit into the Mediterranean diet.

Pesto is typically made from:

  • Fresh basil
  • Garlic
  • Pine nuts or walnuts
  • Olive oil
  • Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

All these ingredients align perfectly with the Mediterranean diet. Pesto sauce provides healthy fats, nutrients and antioxidants from olive oil, nuts and fresh herbs.

Just watch sodium levels in store-bought pesto. Opt for pesto labeled “no salt added.” Make your own instead blending olive oil, basil, nuts and a touch of garlic for an easy homemade sauce.

Overall pesto sauce made from quality Mediterranean diet friendly ingredients can be enjoyed as part of this eating style.

Are tomato sauce and pasta part of the Mediterranean diet?

Tomato sauce and pasta are definitely part of the traditional Mediterranean diet. As Italian staples, these foods are associated with the eating patterns in Mediterranean countries.

However, there are some guidelines to eating pasta and tomato sauce the Mediterranean way:

  • Choose whole grain pasta – whole wheat, spinach, etc.
  • Stick to tomato-based sauces like marinara instead of creamy alfredo.
  • Flavor sauce with olive oil, vegetables, herbs instead of cheese, meat, salt.
  • Enjoy smaller portions – 1 cup pasta with 1/2 cup sauce.
  • Include lots of vegetables like salads and steamed broccoli.
  • Have pasta only occasionally – 1-2 times per week.

When enjoyed in moderation as part of an overall diet focused on whole foods, pasta with tomato sauce can be part of a Mediterranean style eating pattern.


In summary, tomato-based pasta sauces can be included in moderation as part of a Mediterranean diet eating pattern. Focus on varieties made from olive oil, vegetables, herbs and spices instead of heavy creams, cheese or meat. Whole grain pasta paired with tomato sauce, pesto or veggies makes for an occasional Mediterranean-friendly meal. Just be mindful of portions and accompany with salad, greens and plant proteins. While the Mediterranean diet is flexible, it’s best to keep pasta as a side dish rather than the main focus of your plate.