10 Heart Healthy Foods That Aren't
Last Updated: Aug 16, 2017
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What you eat can dramatically impact the health of your heart. Research shows certain foods can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce inflammation and fight plaque buildup. Yet about 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States each year: That’s one in every four deaths, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women. Whole grains, fatty fish, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables are all staples for a healthy ticker. But what happens when a food you think is “heart healthy” isn’t really healthy at all? Is oatmeal as good for you when it’s added to a snack bar? What about that packaged salad at the convenience store? Don’t be fooled by these 10 not-so-heart-healthy foods -- focus on the better options instead.
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Adding the word “turkey” to bacon certainly appears to be a healthy upgrade to the real thing, but reading the nutrition label is still key. “While it will be lower in fat and calories than regular bacon, turkey bacon often has more sodium. Choosing a low-sodium turkey bacon would still be a better option to bacon,” says Lori Zanini, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The American Heart Association recommends people limit their sodium intake to maintain a healthy blood pressure. The other thing to be aware of is while turkey bacon is a leaner option to regular bacon, it still falls in the category of “processed meats,” which are high in sodium and other food additives that may have health risks. “It’s important to limit all processed meats like sausage, bacon and hot dogs in your diet, even when they are marketed as leaner or more natural,” says Zanini.
Read more: 21 Foods That Sound Healthy But Are Not!
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Red wine has earned a reputation for being a heart-healthy dinner companion, so it was surprising when a recently published study in the British Medical Journal found just the opposite. “Researchers analyzed 56 studies (covering 261,991 people) and found that the less you drink, the better it is for cardiovascular health,” says Caroline Kaufman, M.S., RDN, a Los Angeles-based nutrition expert and owner of Caroline Kaufman Nutrition. More specifically, the researchers found that people who had a certain gene that made drinking alcohol uncomfortable (flushing), and so tended to drink in small amounts or to abstain altogether, had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease as compared with people without the genetic variant who tended to drink more. “Since this wasn’t a randomized controlled trial and it looked at people with a certain gene, we can’t assume that the results apply to the entire population. So if you like red wine, continue to enjoy it in moderation, but don’t do it solely for the heart-health benefits,” adds Kaufman.
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PACKAGED OATMEAL SNACKS
There’s plenty of evidence that eating oatmeal lowers both total and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels. The research is so strong that in 1997 the FDA gave it the status of a “health claim,” which allows manufacturers to advertise the heart-healthy benefits on boxes of oatmeal and other products. But how do packaged oatmeal snacks compare to the real deal? “While oats are a heart’s best friend, processed oatmeal treats like breakfast cookies and granola bars are often overloaded with artery cloggers,” says Caroline Kaufman, M.S., RDN. “For example, one serving of a popular brand of oatmeal breakfast cookies has more calories, sodium and sugar than one serving of packaged chocolate-chip cookies, plus it contains artery-clogging trans fat,” Kaufman adds. Read the labels and eliminate products -- including instant-oatmeal packets -- with added sugars and unhealthy ingredients. Your best bet is still the real thing: Have a bowl of oatmeal topped with heart-healthy additions like chopped nuts, fresh berries or cinnamon and apple slices.
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While the word “salad” may sound like a nutritionally noble choice, the reality is their honorable -- or often dishonorable -- nutrient profiles can vary widely when you buy them prepared. “Due to their high mayonnaise content, chicken salads, tuna salads and seafood salads are often loaded with fat and calories,” says Caroline Kaufman, M.S., RDN. It’s not surprising to find a tuna salad with 30 or more grams of fat. “And watch out for the low-fat and nonfat salad dressings, they’re often loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, which can wreak havoc on your heart,” Kaufman adds. Prepared salads can also be extremely high in sodium, sometimes packing in a day’s worth of sodium in one salad. However, heart-healthy prepared salads do exist -- the challenge is in how well you can read a label. A good guide is to choose a salad with more fiber (at least five grams) and less fat (no more than 10 grams) per serving.
Read more: 23 Healthy Salads Nutrition Experts Eat
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GRANOLA AND GRANOLA BARS
Rolled oats, nuts, dried fruit and honey -- granola maybe one of the first grab-and-go “health” foods. But how bright does that health halo shine when you look at the label? “Granola and granola bars can all too often be low in fiber and full of added sugar,” says Lori Zanini, RDN. If you want the crunch of granola, nuts are a good alternative for heart health. “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as pistachios and almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Zanini. Whether it’s granola or nuts, keeping portion sizes in check is also key to a healthy diet. A serving of granola is one-third to one-half cup, and a serving of nuts is one-quarter cup, which equals 23 almonds or 49 pistachios.
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Don’t fear fat. Nonfat doesn’t necessarily mean a food has less calories or better nutrition, and in some cases it could mean the opposite. “When food manufacturers remove fat from dairy products like yogurt, they have to replace it with something -- and that’s usually sugar. All that added sugar hits your bloodstream like a sweet tsunami, stirring up blood glucose and insulin levels, which over time can increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes -- a major risk factor for heart disease. Plus, the fat in dairy may not play a role in heart disease like we once thought,” says Caroline Kaufman, M.S., RDN. Regardless of the fat content of the yogurt, limit those with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. Your best bet is to mix in your own fresh fruit or nuts to a plain yogurt for a truly heart-healthy option.
Read more: Which Type of Yogurt Is Best for You? The Pros and Cons of 13 Different Kinds
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REDUCED-FAT PEANUT BUTTER
Reduced-fat peanut butter is not necessarily a better choice than regular peanut butter, especially for your heart. “Since regular peanut butter naturally contains healthy, monounsaturated fats, this means it helps lower your bad (LDL) cholesterol, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Lori Zanini, RDN. To make the reduced-fat peanut butter variety, the heart-healthy fat is reduced by 25 percent and replaced with added sugar. The calorie content of both varieties is similar. According to the American Heart Association, too much added sugar in your diet is bad for your heart. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine, found those who got 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared with those who consumed 8 percent of their calories from added sugar. “Look for varieties that have ‘peanuts’ and maybe ‘salt’ listed as the only ingredients,” says Zanini.
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Should you go for margarine, butter or something better? “We once thought margarine made with partially hydrogenated oils (or trans fats) saved us from the scourge of saturated fat in butter. Instead we learned that trans fats contribute to thickened, stiff, plaque-clogged arteries by raising bad (LDL) cholesterol and lowering good (HDL) cholesterol,” says Caroline Kaufman, M.S., RDN. But you don’t need to avoid all margarines. For heart health, choose a margarine with no more than two grams of saturated fat and no trans fat. Always check ingredients on the nutrition facts label since margarines advertised as “0 grams trans fat” may have up to 0.5 grams. “Better yet, top your toast or sandwich with creamy avocados or a drizzle of olive oil. Avocados and olive oil are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats and are naturally free of sodium, trans fats and cholesterol,” says Kaufman.
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Is that protein bar good for your heart? Oftentimes it’s not. “Many protein bars are actually candy bars in disguise. Watch out for protein bars that contain chocolate with partially hydrogenated oils (or trans fats). Trans fats put your heart at risk in two ways -- by increasing bad (LDL) cholesterol and lowering good (HDL) cholesterol,” says Lori Zanini, RDN. Protein bars can also be highly processed and loaded with added sugar. Zanini recommends choosing a protein bar that has at least three grams of fiber, no trans fat, and less than eight grams of added sugar. She also advises to look for bars with minimal ingredients you can pronounce to help you avoid highly processed bars. Watch the calorie content too: Some contain more than 350 calories each. Unless you are an athlete needing the calories of an extra meal, choose bars with 200 calories or less.
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You may have heard conflicting advice about coffee and heart health. A 2014 meta-analysis published in Public Health Nutrition found that light to moderate coffee intake (one to three cups per day) is associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes, especially for women. In addition, a small study in Japan suggests that the caffeine in coffee may ease strain on the heart by improving small blood vessel function. But the type of coffee you choose, how much, and what you put in it is key to determining its affect on your heart. “While black coffee is high in antioxidants and may help reduce the risk of heart disease, the sugar, cream and flavored syrups that are regularly added to coffee drinks are not heart healthy,” says Lori Zanini, RDN. Some coffee drinks contain more than 500 calories mainly from sugar. For optimal heart health, limit your coffee intake to one to two cups a day and aim for drinks with no more than two teaspoons (or 10 grams) of sugar.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you surprised by some of the foods in this article? Are there any foods you specifically eat for heart health? Leave a comment below and let us know. Share how you’re working on living a healthier life and maybe your experience will inspire others.
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