Our diet plays a significant role in our heart health, which can either play in our favor or have the opposite effect, depending on what foods we eat every day. “For optimal health, the American Heart Association recommends that adults eat a healthy diet which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean vegetable or animal protein, and fish,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State and fellow of the American Heart Association. The foods we eat have a direct effect on our blood pressure and even help determine how your blood clots. And while obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are all risk factors for heart disease that are closely correlated with what we eat, consuming a diet low in saturated fat and high in fiber can significantly decrease our risk for heart disease.
That being said, are there things we should also make an attempt to avoid consuming in excess in favor of our cardiovascular health? Indeed.
According to Kris-Etherton, we should limit foods high in saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, trans fat, sodium (salt), processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
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“Both saturated and trans fats increase LDL cholesterol, and sodium raises blood pressure, thereby increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke,” Kris-Etherton explains. “Bacon and cold cuts, for instance, are processed meats to avoid. But in addition, look out for things like meat/jerky sticks, which are particularly high in sodium and saturated fat. Finally, consume foods like soda, candies, pastries, and fatty and sugary desserts in moderation.”
Brian Lima, MD, a renowned cardiac surgeon, agrees. “Cold cuts and lunch meats are loaded with saturated fats and high amounts of sodium, which is the main component of salt,” he explains. “Increased sodium intake is linked with increased risk of high blood pressure and heart failure.”
In addition to processed meats, Dr. Lima says that the same applies to canned tuna and soup, which typically pack lots of sodium. “Foods that are high in saturated fats, such as bacon and fried chicken, can also raise your total levels of bad cholesterol—they’re ‘bad’ because they can promote the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque in your blood vessels and increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke,” he says.
But there’s a silver lining, which is all the heart-healthy foods that also taste delicious. “Yes, there are foods to avoid, but there’s also plenty of foods to try out and add into your diet that will fuel your body with positive nutrients,” adds Kris-Etherton. “When it comes to healthy eating, focus on adding more of the delicious, nutrient-dense foods where possible instead of focusing on restricting and limiting yourself. Making your diet enjoyable will make it easier to maintain, which is important for the overall, long-term picture that impacts heart health.”
Talk about words to live by.