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Hippocrates, the father of modern-day medicine once said, “Let food be thy medicine,” recounts Nitin Bhatnagar, a holistic heart doctor and practicing cardiologist in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
“I believe that if we do not treat food as medicine, then we will one day eat medicine as food,” he warns, adding that processed foods, foods with added salt, excess sugars, fast foods, sugar-sweetened beverages and more disrupt our homeostatic mechanisms and promote an increase in diabetes, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol.”
Bhatnagar added that these conditions can increase your risk for heart disease, peripheral vascular disease and stroke.
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Kristin Gillespie, a registered dietitian and adviser for exercisewithstyle.com, echoes Bhatnagar, saying, “As many know, diet plays a critical role in our overall health. Consuming a diet rich in an array of nutrients can help keep our bodies and hearts functioning Conversely, consuming a diet rich in sugar, unhealthy fats and highly processed foods can negatively impact our heart and other vital organs.”
For optimal health, experts suggest regularly consuming these food groups at all costs.
As Bhatnagar sums it up: “We only have one heart. It works hard enough without us adding more stress to it through poor dietary habits.”
Listed below are the worst types of foods for your heart health. Keep them in mind this February for American Heart Month — and year-round.
1. Processed meats
These include sausage, pepperoni, bacon, hot dogs and deli meats, says Gillespie, who calls this category of foods “among the worst foods for your heart.”
We know they may taste good, but when it comes to your ticker, it’s best to avoid these foods.
“They contain significant amounts of salt, preservatives and saturated fats,” she says. “A recent study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirmed the negative impact of these meats on heart health, demonstrating an increased risk of mortality and cardiovascular disease with higher consumption of processed meats.”
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2. Foods with added salt
Speaking of processed meats, it’s worth highlighting that all foods with excessive amounts of added sodium from frozen dinners to sauces are best to steer clear of in a heart-healthy diet.
“Unfortunately many processed foods, meats and canned goods have excess salt. We know that excess can lead to high blood pressure which in turn is a significant risk factor for heart disease. Excess salt through foods can also tax the kidneys and eventually be a cause for kidney failure through uncontrolled hypertension,” says Bhatnagar.
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Bhatnagar cites a recent study by author Yuan Ma, PhD, from the New England Journal of Medicine that evaluated 10,709 patients over 8.8 years.
“[The study] showed that high levels of sodium and low levels of potassium are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. On average 3,400 milligrams of sodium are eaten by Americans each day through processed foods,” says Bhatnagar, adding that the recommended limit of daily sodium consumption by the American Heart Association is 2,300 milligrams a day, but ideally not more than 1,500 milligrams a day. For context, one teaspoon of salt is 2,300 milligrams of sodium.
3. Fried foods
French fries, fried chicken, fried dumplings, you name it. If it’s fried, you should avoid it (or at least, consider fried foods a rare treat).
“Fried foods are at the top of the list of non-heart healthy foods as well. High in calories and undesirable forms of fat, including saturated and trans fats, fried foods can have a negative impact on multiple facets of our overall health,” says Gillespie.
“A recent meta-analysis of observational studies identified a direct relationship between intake of fried foods and risk of heart disease,” Gillespie adds, citing research published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Heart.
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4. Sugar-sweetened beverages
“Sugar-sweetened beverages, like juice and soda, have a lot of negative consequences related to overall health. While their impact on weight and risk of diabetes is widely known, the impact on heart health is not as well-known,” explains Gillespie. . “The negative effect of these drinks is related to their significant sugar content. A study found that consumption of one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day was associated with an increased risk of cardiac disease and stroke.”
5. Diet soda
Just because you drink diet soda doesn’t mean you’re in the clear when it comes to protecting your ticker with healthy beverage choices.
“Diet sodas and other artificially sweetened beverages are counterproductive when it comes to heart health. Artificially sweetened drinks are associated with an increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases. One study even shows that daily consumption of diet soda may cause a 36% greater risk of metabolic syndrome and a 67% greater risk of type 2 diabetes when compared with non-diet-soda drinkers,” says Arika Hoscheit, a registered dietitian with Paloma Health. “These risks are related to the loss of ability to gauge caloric density, increased appetite, disrupted microbiome resulting in glucose intolerance and increased cravings for sugary/energy-dense foods and drinks.”
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To safeguard your heart, Horscheit recommends choosing water over artificially sweetened beverages as often as possible.
“Decreasing your intake of diet soda may help lower your appetite, improve weight management and improve your overall health,” she adds.
6. Red meat
“In a recent study, red meats (both processed and unprocessed) were associated with a higher incidence of cardiac disease,” says Gillespie, noting that when compared with processed red meats (like bacon), unprocessed red meats were less likely to cause heart disease.
“When compared to plant protein sources, however, a significantly lower risk of cardiac disease was seen,” Gillespie added.
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7. Refined grains and sweets
“Refined grains, including white bread and pasta as well as sweets, are associated with a higher risk of heart disease and associated mortality,” says Gillespie. “One recent study identified an increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in individuals consuming refined grains compared to those consuming either whole grains or white rice.”
While the occasional sweet treat or bowl of refined spaghetti is OK, try your best to incorporate as many whole grains as possible into your diet.