As a cardiologist, I’m often asked if there are certain foods to avoid for a healthy heart. There are many foods you know you should avoid, like candy, chips, and cookies. But there are other foods that sound healthy or have the word “healthy” on the label yet can wreak havoc on your heart and overall health. Here are 10 foods you should take off the menu to keep your heart healthy.
1. Microwave Popcorn: Air-popped popcorn is an excellent choice for a heart-healthy diet. It’s low in calories and gives you more antioxidant polyphenols than fruits and vegetables. Microwave popcorn, on the other hand, is a health disaster! The microwavable bag is lined with a substance that releases perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) when heated, which is a potential carcinogen. Plus, the popcorn itself often contains artificial flavorings and colors, along with trans-fats which are a major contributor to arterial inflammation. My recommendation: Enjoy popcorn—just make it air popped.
2. Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar contributes to heart disease by causing inflammation, but don’t switch to chemical sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose or saccharin. The sweet taste of these artificial sweeteners triggers an insulin response in your body, just like regular sugar can. Yet, because you’re not eating sugar, that insulin goes to work on what little sugar is already in your body. That causes your blood sugar to drop, which stimulates hunger and overeating. My recommendation: Sweeten your food with small amounts of honey, pure maple syrup, or the natural sweetener Stevia.
3. Margarine: Many people think switching from butter to margarine is a heart-healthy choice. But margarine is generally made by hydrogenating liquid polyunsaturated oil to create a spread that’s like butter. Hydrogenation creates toxic trans fats, which induce free-radical stress and increase harmful Lp(a) cholesterol. Therefore, margarine is a food you want to avoid for a healthy heart. My recommendation: For heart-healthy eating, ditch the margarine and opt instead for grass-fed organic butter.
4. Fried Foods: While many fast food establishments have removed trans fats from their cooking methods, any type of deep frying isn't good for your heart or your health. Deep frying fish, for example, completely negates the healing power of fish. Meanwhile, studies have shown that eating baked or broiled fish, especially wild caught salmon, gives you vital health-boosting omega-3s. My recommendation: Choose foods that are baked, broiled, or sautéed in olive oil.
5. Flame-Broiled Chicken: Many fast food establishments tout their broiled chicken as being a healthier alternative to fried. Yet, that chicken can pack 1,200 mg of sodium (or more!), which can raise your blood pressure. My recommendation: If you find yourself in a fast-food establishment, opt instead for a plain salad and a hamburger without the bun. A baked potato topped with chili can also be a good choice.
6. Veal: It often surprises people, but veal is one of the most inflammatory foods you can eat, and inflammation is at the root of heart disease. My recommendation: Eat free-range organic beef or bison, instead.
7. Processed Meats: Meats that have been preserved, cured, or smoked—such as sausage, hot dogs, lunch meats, and bacon—have been linked with an increased risk of heart disease. One reason is that these processed meats are often high in sodium, which can elevate your blood pressure. Plus, many of them contain artificial flavors, colorings, and preservatives. My recommendation: Replace processed meats with wild caught salmon and organic meats you cook at home, such as roasted turkey or baked chicken.
8. White Flour: Your body converts white flour to sugar, which spikes your blood sugar and contributes to inflammation. Therefore, for heart health, you want to avoid bread, pasta, and other foods that are made with white floor. My recommendation: Choose foods made from whole wheat flour. Or, better yet, look for healthier glucose-free options like quinoa and Ezekiel bread.
9. High Fructose Corn Syrup: High fructose corn syrup is processed differently in the body than other sugars. It is metabolized in the liver where it’s converted into triglycerides which are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Moreover, when triglycerides rise, the level of HDL “good” cholesterol goes down. That’s bad news for heart health. My recommendation: Read labels carefully and avoid foods made with high fructose corn syrup.
10. Vegetable Oils: Corn, canola, soybean, and other vegetable oils are primarily made up of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. While you need some omega-6s in your diet, most people get far too much. My recommendation: Lightly cook with heart-healthy olive oil or sesame oil. Plus, read labels carefully to avoid foods made with vegetable oil.