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What people who live near the Mediterranean Sea eat became a topic of interest in the 1950s when news spread that Italy, Greece, and the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea had much lower incidences of heart disease than the US.
Research has since then confirmed that the traditional cuisines of these countries help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke (1).
Here are 10 foods to avoid on a Mediterranean diet for better heart health.
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1. Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
Hydrogenated vegetable oils are highly refined.
Oil from plants, such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, and corn, are high in omega-3 and linked to increased inflammation in the body. To lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases, you should limit your consumption of plant oils and seeds, which also contain omega-6 fatty acids.
For a healthy heart, reducing your intake of saturated fat is vital. Trans fat is created during the hydrogenation process, where liquid unsaturated fat turns into solid saturated fat. This process makes the fat more spreadable, such as margarine and shortening.
Trans fat significantly increases the risk of heart disease (2). So, it's best also to avoid commercial baked goods, such as cakes and cookies, which are high in trans fat.
Butter is considered a healthy addition for encouraging weight loss in low-carb and keto diets. But the Mediterranean diet relies more on olive oil than animal fats.
The USDA Nutrient Database reveals that olive oil has just 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, while butter has more than three times that, at 7 grams (3).
It's not that you can't have butter on the Mediterranean diet. You just need to manage how much of it you consume.
Instead of butter, you can enjoy moderate quantities of dairy items. Feta cheese, made from sheep and goat's milk, is an excellent addition to Greek salads.
3. Red Meat
Beef, mutton, and pork are all considered to be red meats.
Red meat sets off a red alert on the Mediterranean diet. This diet takes on more of a vegetarian approach and recommends limiting animal protein and meat intake.
This does not mean you have to avoid them altogether. But you can only enjoy these in limited quantities, so include them in your diet as more of a side dish.
» Interested in improving your diet? Take a look at these Mediterranean meals for healthy aging.
4. Deli Meat
Deli meats are pre-cooked or cured meats sliced and ready for quick meals, such as sandwiches. Bacon, salami, and sausages are also processed meats. These are all delicious and popular convenience foods.
Regular consumption of processed meat and red meat is associated with higher overall mortality rates (4). So it's important to limit the intake of these foods and have fresh poultry or fish instead.
Fish is considered the best source of animal protein in the Mediterranean diet.
Alcohol is not forbidden on the Mediterranean diet. You can have it in moderation—but go easy on the tequila and vodka.
If you want a healthy heart, it's best to stick with wine and avoid hard liquors. Alcohol consumption tends to increase blood pressure and triglycerides in the blood (5). It also increases the risk of cardiomyopathy and cardiac arrhythmia.
You can enjoy a glass of wine daily on the Mediterranean diet. Red wine, especially, is well known for its heart health benefits.
6. White Foods
Refined flour is a definite no on the Mediterranean diet. In a heart-healthy diet plan, it's best to avoid white rice and white flour foods. Minimize your intake of white bread and white pasta. These are very low in nutritional value and barely contain any fiber.
Luckily, there are many alternatives. You can make a lot of baked goodies using whole grains and olive oil on the Mediterranean diet. Experiment with millet, farro, brown rice, or couscous. You can also have whole wheat pasta and brown bread.
7. Canned Food
Canned food is notorious for its salt content. High salt intake is directly linked to increased blood pressure.
The American Heart Association (AHA) tells us to stick to the lower limit of 1,500 mg of sodium per day if we have any blood pressure issues. Their maximum recommendation is 2,300 mg per day (6).
So, you can still have some canned beans and tuna on the Mediterranean diet. Just make sure to keep an eye on your overall salt intake.
» Here's how you can reduce inflammation with the Mediterranean diet.
8. Processed Cheese
The Mediterranean diet encourages the consumption of cheese. But these include natural cheeses made from milk and cultures.
It's best to avoid canned cheese, Velveeta, American, and any other type of cheese that has a long list of additives, such as food coloring or emulsifiers. Processed cheese usually contains less than 50% actual cheese.
9. Cakes, Cookies, and Sugary Treats
Most foods in this category are highly processed and contain hydrogenated oils and refined flour. Yes, the culprit we are referring to is sugar.
You should minimize your intake of sugar while following the Mediterranean diet. Sugar has little nutritional value and contributes to obesity, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Cakes, cookies, and most baked goods are high in sugar. You should also stay away from artificially flavored drinks and sugary sodas.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, have fruits with a drizzle of honey. You can sprinkle on some cinnamon too.
10. Chemically Processed Foods
We've already covered a few chemically processed foods, such as deli meats, processed cheese, and hydrogenated oils.
But any food product that has unnatural additives such as artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or high fructose corn syrup is not recommended for the Mediterranean diet.
Keep in mind that this is not a blanket ban on all packaged foods.
You can have frozen veggies that come in packets, as well as canned tuna or beans. Always check the nutrition label before buying something to ensure the food is not chemically processed.
In Moderation, Not in Satisfying Desires
The Mediterranean diet is ideal for a heart-healthy lifestyle. You can enjoy a wide variety of foods and never feel deprived.
While foods such as alcohol, red meat, butter, and deli meat can be enjoyed in moderation, avoiding the more harmful ones like hydrogenated oils, refined flour, and sugary treats is best.
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