Much has changed over the past several decades in the realm of what we know about heart disease and its causes. But one thing has remained the same: its inevitable tie to the American, or “Western,” diet. Experts used to think that eating a diet high in fat was the key factor that contributed to heart disease. However, now they know that certain fats, specifically omega-3s and -6s, are not harmful in increasing a person’s risk of heart disease. High sodium intake, high sugary-drink consumption, and low intake of fruits and vegetables are mainly responsible for the approximate 45 percent of U.S. deaths caused by heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, according to Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and volunteer medical expert for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement.
While your family history and genetics can certainly play a role in your risk for heart disease, the most effective way to protect your heart is to learn how to read food labels so you can be informed on what to avoid. Here are some of the worst foods to consume if you’re hoping to ward off heart disease and live a long, healthy life.
1. Sodium-Laden Foods
Foods high in salt run rampant in the U.S. and most everywhere else. On average, Americans consume more than the recommended 2,000 milligrams a day. It’s well known that consuming too much salt causes high blood pressure, which directly ties to heart disease. “About half of U.S. adults face an increased risk of high blood pressure due to excess sodium,” Steinbaum says. “This is especially true in certain at-risk populations, including African-Americans, people older than 50, and those with high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.”
2. Processed or Cured Meats
Processed meats, particularly processed red meats, have been found to be quite detrimental to the human body. They’re not only linked to heart disease but to certain cancers, as well. “The processing is high in salt and loaded with ‘sodium nitrite,’ which have strong links to cancer and other health problems,” says preventive cardiologist Richard E. Collins, M.D., also known as “The Cooking Cardiologist.” Even if you opt for low-fat options, all processed meats are going to be high in salt. It’s best to avoid them. Read the nutrition labels to search for whether they contain nitrites or nitrates, which they most likely do.
3. Sugary Drinks
Sugary drinks are one of the biggest culprits of America’s increase in obesity and diabetes in recent decades. “About half of adults in the United States have a sugary drink daily. Every year, 40,000 Americans die from heart problems resulting from consuming too many sugary drinks,” Steinbaum says. “Sugary drink consumption is directly related to the development of diabetes and eventually cardiovascular disease.” For this reason, it’s best to stick to water as a main source of hydration. Plus, always check the nutrition label on drinks. Make sure they’re not secretly laden with high sugar content.
4. Fast-Food Burgers
Fat is receiving far less of the blame for heart disease than it did decades ago. However, it’s still a top concern—especially the saturated fats you find in animal meat. This is even more so the case when saturated fats are combined with carbohydrates, notes NYC-based cardiologist Robert Segal, M.D., co-founder of LabFinder.com. “Fast-food restaurants often use low-quality ingredients that, coupled with the high saturated-fat content found in animal meats, is catastrophic to your health,” he says. If you’re really craving a burger, he suggests making your own.
5. Deep-Fried Food
Yes, even vegetables can escape the “healthy” label if they’re deep-fried. “The usual way that we deep-fry creates trans fat, which increases bad cholesterol levels in the body and decreases the good cholesterol,” Dr. Segal says. “When cooking at home, try to use olive oil for frying. Avoid anything deep-fried.”
6. Bouillon Cubes
Bouillon cubes (stock cubes that create broth), whether chicken, beef, or vegetable, are filled with monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG. “This flavor enhancer tells the body to pump insulin. With regular consumption, that can lead to weight gain. We now know [this] is really not good for our hearts,” Dr. Segal says. Instead, he suggests making your own stock or broth. This will naturally be MSG-free and won’t contain harmful additives.
Wondering what you should be eating for heart health? Read this story on the five heart-healthy foods to add to your diet.