What Not to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet (TOP guide with Infographic 2021)
What Not to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet: Processed meatsProcessed meats include bacon, lunchmeat, and sausage. Red meat includes beef. The Mediterranean Diet does not encourage consumption of red and processed meats. Consume them only on the rare occasion. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has recommended that people avoid processed meat for cancer prevention since 2007. Processed meat is indicated to increase a person’s risk for colorectal cancer. Research from AICR suggests that even small, daily amounts of processed meats, such as one hot dog, increases the risk for colorectal cancer by 18% (in comparison to eating none)! Why does processed meat seem to increase cancer risk?
Scientists believe that three chemicals contribute to colorectal cancer risk:
- Heme iron is a pigment found naturally in meat products
- Nitrates and nitrites are added to keep processed meat fresher longer
- Heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines are produced when meat is cooked at very high temperatures
What Not to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet: Processed cheesesProcessed cheese includes Velveeta, American, cheese in a can, and any cheese product with a long list of ingredients. The Mediterranean Diet encourages the consumption of dairy products, including cheese, in moderation. So why do we specifically call out processed cheese as something to avoid? If you turn over a package of processed cheese, you will have your answer. Natural cheese contains only two or three ingredients, such as milk, cultures, and rennet. Processed cheese, on the other hand, includes a long list of additives including emulsifiers, food coloring, and other substitutes. In fact, some processed cheese is so artificial that manufacturers are required to call it “cheese spread” or “cheese food”. This happens if the cheese product is made with 51% or less actual cheese. The Mediterranean Diet encourages you to eat clean, whole, natural food. Cheese made with raw, natural ingredients like milk and cultures falls within this category. A long list of factory-made ingredients, however, are not the most health-promoting.
Here are a few of the problematic ingredients in processed cheese:
- Low-quality processed or hydrogenated oils: These types of oils are highly refined and some are hydrogenated. Hydrogenation is the process of turning an unsaturated, or liquid-based, fat into a saturated, or solid, fat. During this process, trans fats are created and can be found in partially hydrogenated oils. A review from The New England Journal of Medicine discusses the negative effects of trans fat on cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Additionally, a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids has been linked to inflammation. Oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, and sunflower are higher in omega-6 fatty acids. This study highlights the importance of consuming a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Read more about these oils in the section on them.
- Coloring agents: Certain coloring agents, such as Yellow 6, have been banned by the European Union (but not by the US). This is because these coloring agents have been found to be carcinogenic.
- Emulsifiers: Chemicals added to cheese to keep the fat from separating. Emerging data in mouse studies suggest that some emulsifiers may affect the gut microbiome which can lead to intestinal inflammation and metabolic syndrome.
- Added sugar: Natural cheese does not contain any added sugar. While some sugar is okay in moderation, too much added sugar in your diet can become problematic. When you eat excess sugar, it leads to empty calories which are converted to fat to be stored for use at a later time. Over time, excess fat and cholesterol may cause the walls of your arteries to get inflamed and to grow thicker than normal as plaque begins to build up. This stresses your heart and can damage it over time, leading unfortunately to heart disease. One study found a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality. Read more about added sugar in the section pertaining to it.
What Not to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet: Processed foodsHere we specifically call out processed foods that contain processed sugar, sugar substitutes, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives. The Mediterranean Diet recommends limiting or eliminating processed foods. Processed foods (sometimes called “chemically processed foods”) are foods or food products that include unnatural additives such as artificial colors, added sugars, and preservatives. This is not to be confused entirely with packaged foods. Some foods that come in a package are ok. For example, canned beans and frozen vegetables without any additives are great to have on hand for quick and easy meals during the work week! However, packaged products with added colors or artificial flavors would be a no-go.
Why does the Mediterranean Diet promote whole, real food over processed food?There are so many reasons. One study involving close to 20,000 adults, found that eating more than four servings of processed food daily was linked with a 60% relative hazard of all-cause mortality. For each additional daily serving, the mortality risk increased by 18%. Chemically processed foods generally include added sugar, refined carbohydrates, and artificial ingredients. These processed foods are manufactured to delight our taste buds in a way that is hyper-stimulating (as in, more stimulating than foods found naturally in nature). It can be very difficult to stop eating these kinds of foods because they were designed to be super stimulating. They are also generally lower in fiber and other key nutrients such as vitamins and minerals compared to whole foods, which means that they don’t make us full the same way that whole foods do! It’s a double whammy: they are super stimulating so we want to keep eating them and they don’t make us feel full so we can eat the whole bag. Additionally, they are often higher in calories too. What’s not surprising? Studies have found that these types of foods are a major contributor to obesity and weight gain. In addition to weight gain and obesity, the chemicals and additives in processed foods wreak havoc on our health, too.
Some health problems stemming from processed foods include:
- Cancer Risk: One study found that eating too much processed foods can increase your risk for cancer. Every 10% increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 12% increased risk for cancer, particularly breast cancer.
- Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Highly processed foods are often high in refined carbohydrates. While carbs from whole foods are important and healthy in our diets, refined carbs cause problems. Consumption of refined carbohydrates leads to rapidly spiking blood sugar levels followed by a quick increase in insulin levels. When these levels drop again, a person may experience sugar crashes, low energy, headache, and extreme hunger. These frequent, large spikes in blood sugar is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
- Possible Risk of ADHD Symptoms: Artificial food colorings have been suggested to increase hyperactivity symptoms in kids. It’s possible that adults have the same risks as children. As mentioned above, some coloring agents have been found to be carcinogenic too.
- Heart Disease Risk: Low-quality processed oils, highly refined oils, and hydrogenated oils are often found in processed foods. A review from The New England Journal of Medicine discusses the negative effects of trans fat on cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- Less Healthy Diet Overall: By eating processed foods, you are consuming less whole, natural foods. By eating processed foods, you miss out on important nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Even fortified foods—foods that have vitamins and nutrients added back in by manufacturers—aren’t enough by themselves. Our bodies don’t process supplements or fortified foods the same way it does natural foods. Your body needs a diet that is full of whole foods. (You can read more about fortified foods here.)
What Not to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet: Processed Desserts from a box or store-bought.Desserts should be made with whole foods. Limit store-bought, boxed, and otherwise artificial or processed items. Limit added sugar in your diet. While sugar found naturally in foods provides your body with energy, too much added sugar in your diet can be problematic.
Eating too much sugar sets the stage for potential health problems such as:
- Heart Disease. When you eat excess sugar, the excess calories are stored in your body as fat which can start to cause plaque buildup within your arteries all over your body. Over time, this process causes the walls of your arteries to get inflamed and to grow thicker than normal and stiffer. This stresses your heart and can damage it over time, leading to heart disease, stroke, and other heart problems.
- Tooth problems. Sugar promotes tooth decay by encouraging bacteria in your mouth to grow and multiply. The more often you snack on foods and beverages with sugar, the more likely you are to develop cavities. Of course, you want to practice good oral hygiene. You also want to limit your added sugars.
- Missing nutrients. Every time you choose to eat sugar-laden, processed foods and desserts instead of whole nutritious foods, you are choosing to consume fewer nutrients. By eating processed foods, you miss out on important nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Sweetened, packaged desserts add lots of extra sugar and calories with very little nutritional value.
- Weight gain. Adding sugar to foods and beverages makes them more calorie-dense. It's easy to consume too many extra calories when eating foods that are sugar-sweetened.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, the Mediterranean Diet recommends eating fresh fruits and dark chocolate. (Recipes here).
- Eating a diet high in fruits (and vegetables) can reduce your risk of developing many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, inflammation, and diabetes. Fruit is full of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that your body needs, including flavonoids (an important antioxidant). One study found that berries and citrus fruit were especially nutrient-dense.
- Dark chocolate is also great for health. With over 70% cacao, dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants and minerals, with little added sugar. Some studies show that dark chocolate may improve brain function and may even help prevent cognitive problems like Alzheimer’s. Choose chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao solids. More cacao means more antioxidants (and health benefits) and less overall sugar.
What Not to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet: Refined, processed or hydrogenated oilsRefined oils include soybean oil, safflower oil, palm oil, Crisco, and hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated. These types of oils are highly refined. To “refine” an oil, manufacturers use heavy chemicals to neutralize, filter, bleach, or otherwise treat the oil. Most of these oils are also heated to very high temperatures during the processing to make them more palatable and shelf-stable. Unfortunately, this high heat causes the oil to oxidize which creates free radicals. Free radicals damage the cells of our bodies and put us at greater risk for all kinds of health problems. One study found that common vegetable oils, soybean and canola, contain up to 4% trans fat. Consumption of trans fat increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids has been linked to inflammation. Oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, and sunflower are higher in omega-6 fatty acids. This study highlights the importance of consuming a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Oils to limit include:
- Soybean oil
- Safflower oil
- Corn oil
- Vegetable oil
- Canola oil
- Hydrogenated oil and partially-hydrogenated
What should you cook with and use?Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the top oil recommended by the Mediterranean Diet. While the overall health benefits of fat intake are controversial, consumption of EVOO has many benefits. Olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, specifically oleic acid. Studies suggest that oleic acid can reduce inflammation in our bodies and may help protect against cancer. Olive oil can protect your health in another way, too. Extra virgin olive oil has plenty of antioxidants, including Vitamin E. Antioxidants scavenge and remove free radicals from your blood, which can protect against inflammation and chronic diseases. This study highlights the antioxidant properties of olive oil and the overall health beneficial effects including reduced risk of cancer and overall anti-inflammatory properties. Some other oils that you can consider adding to your diet include avocado oil and walnut oil. Avocado oil can be used for cooking at high temperatures because of its high smoke point. Similar to olive oil, avocado oil is also high in the monounsaturated fat oleic acid. Walnut oil adds a lovely, nutty flavor to baking and salads. It is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids too. Make sure to choose unrefined oils. Removing refined oils from your diet is likely a two-step process. Step one is to remove them from your own kitchen. Cook, bake, and top your salads with olive oil (or avocado or walnut oil). Step two is to reduce or eliminate processed foods from your diet. The majority of refined oil intake comes from the consumption of processed foods, as these types of oils are inexpensive to produce so manufacturers use them frequently. Download this handy Infographic here. We've focused this article on what not to eat on the Mediterranean Diet. We wouldn't want you to leave without a great understanding of all the delicious foods that you are encouraged to eat! These foods include:
- Fruits and veggies of all kinds at every meal
- Lots of whole grains
- Olive oil and healthy fats like avocado and nuts
- Beans, legumes, and nuts as primary sources of protein
- Seafood and fish
Are you looking to continue to enjoy sweets while living a healthy lifestyle?
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