The relationship between food and heart health is obvious. Cardiologists agree that poor diet choices are the root of heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, inflammation, and obesity. Unfortunately, addictive foods continue to win out, with millions of Americans chowing down on the worst foods for heart health without a second thought.
Think of it this way. You get a brand new houseplant from the nursery, are excited to bring it home, and start caring for it. You know it needs sunshine, water, and nutrients.
So you stick it in a dark closet, “water” it with Pepsi, and instead of a nutrient-dense fertilizer, you sprinkle french fries over the soil. Within a week, your new houseplant is beyond saving.
This ridiculous scenario is what happens when you feed your body junk food. Just like a houseplant, it needs water, sunshine, and nutrients. How often do you feed it Pepsi and french fries instead? What you put into your body affects every system — including your heart.
Here is our list of some of the worst foods for heart health and what you should eat instead.
Worst foods for heart health
Soda and sweet drinks
Anyone with an interest in healthy eating shouldn’t be surprised to see soda and sweet drinks at the top of the list of popular foods bad for heart health. According to researchers, sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories and added sugar in the U.S. diet.
Fancy coffee drinks that are more syrup than coffee. Energy drinks — a dangerous cocktail of chemicals, sugar, and caffeine. Fruit juice — marketed as part of a balanced diet for schoolchildren everywhere. Not to mention the biggest culprit of them all — soda.
Unfortunately, this list barely scratches the surface. Chocolate milk, lemonade, sports drinks, sweet tea, and even sparkling water all contain high levels of added sugar — making them disastrous for heart health.
These drinks are sweetened with sugar, including high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, maltose, brown sugar, fructose, and straight-up refined sugar.
Studies show that 63% of American adults aged 18 or older reported drinking sugar-sweetened beverages once daily or more. This rising prevalence of sugary drinks is linked to the rise in heart disease in the nation.
A Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA) report published in 2020 followed U.S. adults for a mean of 12.5 years. Researchers found that drinking more than 12 ounces of sugary beverages daily led to a 53 percent higher risk of high triglycerides and abnormal cholesterol, clear risk factors for heart disease.
Studies show that your heart disease and stroke risk increases with each sugary drink you consume in a single day.
Sugary drinks also contribute to the obesity epidemic, which is linked to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and an increased risk of heart attack.
Drink instead: Enjoy a nice glass of filtered water or pure, carbonated water with no added flavor or sugar. Click here to shop our favorite high-quality water filtration system.
Note: Diet isn’t better! Diet soft drinks are loaded with artificial sweeteners and chemicals that contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and increased sugar cravings.
Fast, fried food
Many people who fail to plan and prepare healthy meals grab fast food as a quick, cheap option. According to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during 2013–2016, 36.6 percent of adults consumed fast food on a given day.
Fast foods are some of the worst foods for heart health. French fries, processed meats, and greasy takeout food are high in unhealthy oils and trans fats that directly contribute to inflammation and plaque build-up in the arteries. Like sugary drinks, fast food also leads to obesity, abnormal cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes — risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Eat instead: Meal prep at the beginning of the week so that you’re prepared for a busy workweek. Having food on hand will keep you from those hunger-driven stops at the drive-thru.
Baked goods and refined grains
As we’ve mentioned, sugar is a top contender for the top food that is bad for your heart. Unfortunately, it isn’t just in soft drinks and fast food. Cookies, cakes, donuts, and white bread contain sugar and other preservatives that contribute to inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Baked goods also often contain trans fats like partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a known contributor to heart conditions.
Plus, refined grains convert to sugar in your body, leading to a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, and early death. Not to mention, white flour contains nothing your body needs — it lacks any fiber, essential nutrients, or vitamins and minerals.
Eat instead: Enjoy a piece of organic, in-season fruit for dessert and stick to grain-free flour such as almond flour. If you need your bread-fix, check out Bread Srsly for non-GMO, gluten-free options.
Highly processed meat
While conventional medical advice still recommends avoiding red meat for heart health; experts recognize that quality, grass-finished red meat is an essential source of vitamins like B12 and D3. Studies show that saturated fat from quality animal sources is good for your heart, contrary to what most nutritionists suggest.
The problem is highly processed meat that barely resembles anything close to its natural state. Just look at the process of creating a hot dog.
Factories grind parts from various animals into a paste, add coloring, artificial preservatives, and sugar. They then stuff this “meat” into a tube, which is packaged and sold as a hot dog.
Traditional sausage, salami, and deli meat contain chemicals, additives, and excessive amounts of sodium that could contribute to heart disease.
One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that 5 ounces or more of processed meat a week increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 46 percent and the risk of death by 50 percent compared to eating no processed meat.
Eat instead: Enjoy organic, unprocessed meat freely and eat organic, processed meat (such as pasture-raised bacon and pure grass-fed beef hot dogs) in moderation. We love US Wellness for Grass Finished beef products. Click here to shop their site. Paleovalley is our top choice for on-the-go meat sticks and other grass-finished meat products. Shop here.
Margarine was long heralded as the world’s heart health crisis. Now, most people recognize this “butter” as a heart-harming chemical concoction of GMO vegetable oils.
For years, fat was seen as the enemy of heart health. This led to a rise in alternative products, like margarine, being marketed as healthier alternatives. Now, doctors and dieticians are starting to recognize that not all fat is bad. In fact, healthy, organic fat from quality sources such as avocado is necessary to support your heart.
An analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that the sugar industry funded many studies that blamed fat for the rise of heart disease. In reality, the villain was sugar all along.
Eat instead: Enjoy raw, grass-fed ghee or butter. Cook with avocado oil and drizzle with olive oil. Make sure you buy quality olive oil such as Kassandrinos. Shop here.
Other foods that are bad for your heart
- Canned soup — High in added sodium that could contribute to atherosclerosis.
- Ice cream — Contains sugar, trans fats, and unhealthy conventional dairy.
- Candy — Contains excessive amounts of sugar that contribute to obesity, heart disease, and oral health issues that could contribute to coronary heart disease.
- Pizza — Offers no nutritional benefit and is a significant source of refined grains.
- Potato chips — Loaded with GMO hydrogenated vegetable oils and refined table salt.
- Condiments and salad dressings — Sneaky sources of sugar and highly processed.
- Pasta — Refined grains that lead to blood sugar spikes and increase heart disease risk.
- Sugary cereals — Often labeled as a “nutritious part of any breakfast,” cereal contains sugar and refined carbohydrates that contribute to inflammation and increased cravings.
- Soy — Soy lectins contribute to inflammation and have been linked to heart disease.
- Moldy food — Moldy food is a significant source of toxins that impact heart health. Common sources of food mold include whole grains such wheat, barley, oats, and rye. Other mold-friendly foods are corn, peanuts, dried fruits, cheese, coffee beans, alcohol, and chocolate. Avoid mold-prone foods unless you are confident that the food source is safe. Read more about mold mycotoxins in food here.
Eliminating these foods that are bad for heart health is a great step towards a healthy diet. After all, all of the seafood and organ meat in the world won’t matter if you’re eating fast food every day and downing soft drinks like water.
Go through your fridge and pantry and throw out anything from this list to start. Make sure to read the ingredients and check for anything that contains added sugar, refined grains, or hydrogenated oils. Remember, those condiments in your fridge door could be a sneaky source of hidden sugar!
Check out NHD’s four-week online Foundational Nutrition course for more information about healthy eating and practical strategies to prepare your body for health through diet. You can also check out our Nutrition page here for some eating principles to get you on track.
Next, get in touch with one of our expert health coaches here at NHD. They can walk you through the next steps and answer questions to support your journey to your 100 Year Heart.
Eat well, Live well, Think well
Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza 2023