Many of us often feel bombarded with ever-changing and confusing nutrition advice. If that well-intended guidance leaves your head spinning, rest assured that recommendations for a heart-healthy diet have stayed relatively consistent over the years.
A good rule of thumb for heart-protecting eating is to choose the foods you know are good for you — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy — and limit others that might not be the best choice to eat in excess.
So, to keep your heart beating like a champ, you'll want to watch out for foods high in sodium, added sugar and saturated fats as well as highly processed and fried foods, which all won't benefit your ticker.
1. Foods High in Sodium
A whopping 33 percent of people in the United States have high blood pressure (aka hypertension), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That means that their blood pressure is above 140/90, which is way higher than the recommendation to keep it under 120/80. All of that excess pressure on the heart puts you at risk for a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure or even loss of vision, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Excess sodium in the diet is one of the main contributors to high blood pressure. And one of the reasons why taking in too much salt is harmful to the heart is because it increases the amount of water retained by the body, according to a September 2019 article published in Nutrients.
All of that extra fluid is hard on the heart and limiting foods high in sodium can help you cut back on your salt intake and help lower your blood pressure.
Salty Foods to Limit
- Cured and processed meats (such as deli meats, jerky and canned meat)
- Salty snacks (such as pretzels, chips and crackers)
- Frozen dinners
- Fast food
- Processed cheese
Are You Taking in Too Much Salt?
2. Foods High in Added Sugar
You know that foods high in added sugar are not good for your health, but did you know that they are especially harmful to your heart?
People who took in 17 to 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugar were observed to have a 38 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who only took in 8 percent of their calories from added sugar, a study published in April 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found.
Researchers aren't sure exactly why this is the case, but they have some theories to help explain it: Excessive added sugars in the diet may lead to weight gain and high blood pressure, and added sugars have been tied to increased inflammation in the body — both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
The AHA recommends that women keep their intake of added sugar below 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons) and men stick to no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) per day. That comes out to around 5 to 7 percent of daily calories.
Elizabeth Ward, RDN of Better is the New Perfect, thinks of it this way: "I don't drink sugary beverages mainly because I don't want to spend calories on drinks that have nothing to offer but added sugar."
Sugary Foods to Limit
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (such as soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened tea and coffee drinks)
- Condiments (such as ketchup and BBQ sauce)
- Processed foods (such as soups, cereals, granola bars and frozen meals)
3. Fried and Fast Food
It's no secret that fried foods and fast food aren't doing your heart any favors. In fact, fried foods — more specifically, fried chicken and fried fish — are associated with a higher risk of death from heart disease, according to a January 2019 study published in The BMJ.
There are several reasons why this might be the case. First, people often indulge in fried foods when they dine out and many of us don't know what type of oil our food is fried in. What's more, cooking at high temperatures can produce potentially carcinogenic compounds while continuously reheating the same oil has been shown to release free radicals in animal studies, according to August 2016 research in Toxicology Reports.
Also, fried foods are often high in sodium, which can raise blood pressure. And last, but certainly not least, choosing unhealthy fried and fast food crowds out room for more nutritious foods that are good for your heart, such as vegetables and whole grains.
Fried Foods to Limit
- Deep-fried meats (such as chicken nuggets and fish and chips)
- Deep-fried finger foods (such as french fries, onion rings and mozzarella sticks)
- Fried snacks (such as potato chips and tortilla chips)
- Fried desserts (such as doughnuts and fried Oreos)
4. Foods High in Saturated Fat
You may have heard recent research doesn't necessarily conclude that saturated fats increase your risk of heart disease, but there are still good reasons to limit how much saturated fats you take in. That's because saturated fats can indeed raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, which increases the risk for blocked arteries, per Harvard Health Publishing.
This doesn't mean you have to cut the fat from your diet — just keep your saturated fat below 10 percent of your total calories for the day. And get this: Replacing some of those saturated fats with healthier, polyunsaturated fats, such as those from avocado, flaxseeds and fish might help reduce your risk for heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Foods High in Saturated Fat to Limit
- Palm oil and coconut oil
- Fried foods or processed and shelf-stable foods
- Animal fat (such as beef fat, chicken skin and lard)
5. Highly Processed or Refined Grains
Refined grains have been shown to increase your risk for heart disease, according to a September 2019 report in Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality, and Outcomes.
Refined grains pose a double whammy for heart health: They barely contain the fiber that whole grains have (and fiber has been linked to improved glucose control and helping to lower cholesterol) while many refined grains also sneak in added sugars, which should be limited.
Because of this, they're high on the glycemic index scale, which measures how certain foods affect your blood glucose levels, according to the University of Sydney. A diet high in high-glycemic foods is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and death, according to a February 2021 study in The New England Journal of Medicine.
This doesn't mean you have to cut white rice and bagels completely. To get fiber and gain all the heart-healthy benefits, simply make half of the grains you eat every day whole grains.
"While I still love white rice and yellow rice, I do limit how often I enjoy them," KeyVion Miller, RDN of KeyVion Miller Nutrition, says. "I instead choose brown rice and quinoa because I want all the nutrition that eating whole grains provides."
Processed or Refined Grains to Limit
- White bread
- White rice
- Desserts and pastries made with refined flour
- American Heart Association: "Health Threats from High Blood Pressure"
- Nutrients: "Sodium Intake and Hypertension"
- JAMA: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"
- The BMJ: "Association of Fried Food Consumption with All Cause, Cardiovascular, and Cancer Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study"
- Toxicology Reports: Evaluation of the Deleterious Health Effects of Consumption of Repeatedly Heated Vegetable Oil"
- Harvard Medical School: "The Truth About Fats: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between"
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes: "A Clinician's Guide to Healthy Eating for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention"
- The New England Journal of Medicine: "Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load, and Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality"