Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, for both men and women. According to the CDC, 655,000 Americans die from heart disease every year—that’s roughly 1 in 4 deaths. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As Harvard Medical School professor Paul Dudley White, MD said over 60 years ago: “A heart attack after age 80 is an act of God, but a heart attack before age 80 is a preventable event.”
One way to prevent your heart from quitting prematurely is to clean up your diet—yes, what you eat plays a major role in chronic disease risk and prevention. Saturated fats and high-sugar foods are the worst offenders when it comes to heart health.
“For over 50 years there has been overwhelming data that foods rich in saturated fats predictably raise blood cholesterol and raise the risk over time of atherosclerosis,” says holistic cardiologist Joel Kahn, MD. “Saturated fat-rich foods reduce LDL-cholesterol receptors on the liver cells leading to increased LDL-cholesterol levels in the blood and greater risk of plaque development over time.”
“Added sugar may not directly cause atherosclerosis but drives obesity, insulin resistance, inflammation, and the further worsening of arterial health,” says Kahn.
Interventional cardiologist Maja Zaric, MD, FACC, FSCAI, agrees, saying that highly-processed foods “are the cause of substantial inflammatory reaction.”
When they’re consumed regularly, they “may cause injury to the inner lining of the blood vessels, making them porous and prone to accumulating cholesterol crystals and inflammatory cells,” says Dr. Zaric, who further explains that this eventually leads to increased vascular plaque and can affect circulation throughout the body.
To anyone looking for heart-healthy foods, Dr. Zaric says: “Make sure you recognize what you eat!” Ditch highly processed, sugar-laden foods and shift towards a Mediterranean diet, “rich in dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, lean, organic meat and ideally, wild-caught fish,” says Zaric.
And be sure to limit these popular foods that may damage your heart in your diet, plus be sure to read up on our list of the 100 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.
Processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats are usually full of nitrates—a preservative added to make them last longer. According to registered dietitian Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD, sodium nitrate may “damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease.”
Plus, processed meats are often loaded with saturated fat. Take bacon, for instance: More than half of bacon’s calories come from saturated fat.
“Consuming large amounts of saturated fat, particularly animal fat, will allow for disproportional ingestion of cholesterol and increase the level of fats known to be a direct cause of vessel injury,” says Dr. Zaric.
On top of that, processed meats are loaded with salt, which directly increases your blood pressure forcing your heart to work in overdrive.
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Pastries and baked goods are a triple whammy, hitting you with sugar, refined flour, and high-calorie saturated fats—a lethal combo for your heart.
“Simple starches and sugars may be worse than saturated fats,” says Dr. Zaric, who likens consuming simple sugars and starchy foods to spoon-feeding someone cane sugar: “The reaction is the same—high insulin.”
The resulting “sugar spikes and secretion of insulin accelerate atherosclerosis and may even cause heart disease to accelerate,” she explains.
If you’re having a hard time kicking your sugar habit, try This One Trick Will Cut Your Sugar Cravings for Good.
Research has found that caffeine—especially in the high doses found in energy drinks—is linked to “multiple cardiac comorbidities including palpitations and a number of arrhythmias.” Plus, a 2016 study found that energy drinks can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
That’s scary enough, but another reason to ditch energy drinks is that they’re often loaded with added sugar, along with these Dangerous Ingredients in Energy Drinks, According to Dietitians.
It’s the stuff that you ingest daily that’s really important to be mindful of. If you’re pouring high-sugar creamers into your morning coffee, think again. Many pre-packaged coffee creamers are packed with trans fat (considered the worst fat you can eat). Research shows trans fats are directly linked to cardiovascular disease because they increase the ratio of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) to HDL cholesterol (the good kind).
In fact, trans fats are so bad, The World Health Organization (WHO) launched an initiative to eliminate them from the world’s food supply by 2023.
RELATED: 7 Things You Should Never Add to Your Coffee
This may come as shock to anyone who follows wellness influencers on social media, but “coconut oil is a dangerous food choice due to the 85% saturated fat content, higher than bacon,” says Kahn, who acknowledges its problematic rise in popularity. “While it may raise HDL cholesterol, we do not know if this is protective. We do know that the rise in LDL-cholesterol promotes plaque and disease states.”
Dr. Zaric emphasizes using olive oil over coconut oil when cooking.
“Olive oil is strongly associated with not only a reduced risk of heart disease, but also cerebrovascular disease and Alzheimers. And the more it is used the better the correlation,” she says.
While a glass or two of beer, wine, or your favorite cocktail every now and then isn’t detrimental, overconsumption of alcohol can do some major damage to your heart. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a type of heart disease where the muscles around the heart are weakened and can’t pump blood efficiently.
While this type of heart disease is linked to long-term alcohol abuse, research has found that even low to moderate alcohol consumption may increase factors leading to atherosclerosis and boost inflammation in the body, escalating the risk of cardiovascular disease.
There’s no other way to slice it (sorry—pun intended), the beloved combo of refined flour, high fat cheese, sodium, and processed meats (if you’re getting sausage or pepperoni) is detrimental to heart health.
Pizza is one of the biggest sources of saturated fat in the American diet. According to the USDA, one slice of pizza has roughly 4.8 grams of saturated fat, and we all know it’s not easy stopping at just one slice. And whatever you do, stay far away from these worst pizza slices in America.
High amounts of salt have been linked to heart disease, stroke, and heart failure. Sodium increases blood pressure, which can in turn cause arteries to harden and narrow, spiking your risk of developing heart disease. And often your favorite ready-to-go can of soup sitting on your pantry shelf is a sodium bomb. One can of Campbell’s Chunky Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup has a whopping 1,720 milligrams of sodium. And Panera’s Broccoli Cheddar Soup has 17 grams of saturated fat.
Along with these, here are 25 Foods High in Sodium You Should Watch Out For.
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