The Unhealthiest Foods for Your Heart, Says Dietitian
A diet for heart health has long been debated in research and in the media, so it’s time to settle the score once and for all.
Heart health encompasses several systems in the body: blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglycerides, and atherosclerotic disease — or the build-up of plaque in your arteries. When we look at these different types of heart disease and related factors, foods for heart health really boil down to three major components: sodium in your diet, the types of fat you eat, and the quality of carbs you choose.
Let’s break each of these down into the unhealthiest food in each category and how they may affect heart health.
High sodium foods
If you have ever had to watch your sodium intake, you can probably relate to the scenario of going to the grocery store and picking up your favorite packaged item, only to have your eyes bug out of your head at the amount of total sodium you find. High-sodium foods are known for worsening blood pressure. Typically, when we think of salty foods we think of processed foods, canned foods, fast foods, and frozen foods.
First of all, not all sodium content is bad! We need some sodium in our diet to function optimally especially if you are outside in the sun often, sweating a lot, or quite active. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than a teaspoon a day, or 2,300 milligrams, for the average adult. If you don’t have any sodium restrictions in your diet due to heart disease or blood pressure concerns, you may even require more than this due to losing sodium in your sweat or during exercise. Be sure to consult with your healthcare professional to figure out the right sodium levels for you.
For your heart health, you’ll want to limit processed foods with lots of added sodium. Take a look at labels that you often buy from the frozen aisle, canned goods, deli items, or fast foods. Try making some of your favorite foods at home where you can control the added salt in your recipes.
Bottom line: If heart health and blood pressure are your concern, veer away from foods with added sodium, add plenty of fruits and vegetables into your diet, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Foods high in saturated and trans fats
If you grew up in the 1990s, you might remember the low-fat craze. Although we’ve come a long way since then, many people still feel confused about what healthy fats they should eat for their hearts.
Healthy fats are an essential part of our diet. We need fat to feel full and satisfied at our meals, keep our cells optimally running, and support healthy skin, hair, and nails. The goal is not to cut out fat completely, but rather to incoporate a variety of fats while emphasizing heart-healthy choices.
In general, healthy fats tend to come from whole, real food sources. Research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) found plant-based fats and oils tend to be the best for our health, and animal-based fats should be consumed in moderation. Plant-based fats include olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
Alternatively, unhealthy fats for your heart include overconsuming foods high in trans fat like fried foods, pre-packaged dessert products, and shortening.
Sources of saturated fat may elevate cholesterol and increase one’s risk of developing heart disease. Another 2021 JAHA study found that some sources, like yogurt and cheese, were associated with improved heart health, and meats and butter were associated with increased heart disease risk. The American Heart Association (AHA) advises keeping your saturated fat intake to just 5% to 6% of your total calories of the day to keep your cholesterol levels and your disease risk low. So for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, that is 120 calories or 13 grams.
Bottom line: If heart health and cholesterol are your concern, steer away from fried foods and large amounts of red meat, and reduce saturated fats in your diet.
Carbohydrates play a role in heart health directly and indirectly. Overeating refined, sugary carbs can certainly increase triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that can contribute to heart health risks. Triglycerides form in the liver after high-sugar carbs are absorbed and can get “stuck” in the arteries, which contribute to plaque build-up that can “clog” major blood vessels. Refined grains and other simple carbs are often in desserts like cookies, pastries, cakes, white bread, white rice, and white pasta.
Highly processed carbs may also indirectly influence heart health by increasing your diabetes risk. Diabetes increases your risk of a cardiovascular event especially if blood sugar is uncontrolled.
Instead of sugary carb sources, choose high fiber, complex carbs the majority of the time for your heart. Complex carbs are foods like beans, brown rice, quinoa, corn, whole wheat bread, and pasta. Fiber helps slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and also helps to bind cholesterol in the gut. This means more cholesterol is excreted and thus does not enter the bloodstream.
Bottom line: If triglycerides are part of your heart health risk, you’ll want to swap high sugar and refined grains for whole grains when possible to reduce lipid levels in the blood and improve your heart health.
Remember to get checked!
Don’t forget to see your doctor for your annual physical and lab work to get your blood checked. This help you evaluate how your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides respond to your current diet and lifestyle. These lab values are highly dependent on healthy choices, and you have a lot of control over changing them!
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