The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional diets and lifestyles of people from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy and Greece. Since the early 1960s, researchers have noted that these people are exceptionally healthy compared to Americans and have a low risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Numerous studies over the years have shown the Mediterranean diet helps prevent heart attacks and strokes, protects against cancer, helps with weight loss and even helps people live longer.

There is no one right or wrong way to follow a Mediterranean diet. Remember: there are many countries around the Mediterranean Sea and the people living there don't all eat the same things. Consider this a general guideline, not something written in stone. The foods and ingredients can be modified to fit individual needs and preferences. It's even great for children.

The Mediterranean diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish and healthy fats. Nutrients from these foods help support optimal growth and development while also promoting a healthy weight. If you'd like for you and your family to enjoy the healthful benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, these easy steps can help you get started:

Build a strong base
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, delivering a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates for energy and fiber for smooth digestion. Instead of making meat the main event, use plant-based foods as the foundation for hearty meals such as pasta with vegetables, minestrone soup or stir-fried veggies over brown rice.

Learn to love beans
You won't find much red meat or even chicken in this diet, but there are plenty of beans -- also called legumes -- and lentils. Beans are naturally low in fat and loaded with protein, fiber and healthy carbohydrates. Beans are also high in potassium, magnesium and iron. Add a variety of beans to your diet by tossing chickpeas, soy or kidney beans into salads; add peas or lentils to cooked rice; or mash seasoned pinto beans into a cheesy quesadilla.

Look toward the sea
Fish and seafood plays a starring role in the Mediterranean diet. They are a top source of brain- and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, plus they're packed with protein. Seafood cooks fast, making it perfect for quick meals such as grilled shrimp tossed into pasta marinara, or tuna stirred into whole-wheat couscous.

Stop fearing fat
Monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and seeds are an important part of the Mediterranean diet. In addition to making olive oil your go-to cooking oil, toss pine nuts or sliced almonds into sautéed green beans, spinach or asparagus. Make your own trail mix using dried fruits, whole-grain cereals, nuts and seeds ... a great activity for children.

Dip it
Children (and adults) love to eat foods they can dip. Dunking veggies into Mediterranean-inspired spreads such as hummus, tzatziki -- a creamy yogurt dip -- or baba ghanoush, made from sesame and eggplant, sneaks in a serving of vegetables and keeps the wee ones happy.

Live it
Finally, the Mediterranean lifestyle is almost as important as the diet if you want to gain all of the protective health benefits. This includes regular physical activity, getting plenty of sleep, sharing your meals with friends and family, and enjoying life.