Heart disease remains one of the top killers in the United States, and what’s really alarming is how much more we can be doing to prevent it. Part of the problem can often be hereditary; if you have a history of cardiovascular illness in your family, your chances of having some kind of problem with your heart do jump. However, it’s not too hard to beat back genetics and the contributions that lifestyle make to your heart health. A few simple changes like more exercise, better food choices, and cooking in rather than eating out can make a huge difference in your heart’s ability to fight off disease and keep the rest of your body running smoothly.
You might think you know what to eat. However, there are some surprisingly bad foods for your heart that you may not have thought of. It can be hard to keep up; it seems like research is evolving all the time, and every week there’s a new diet bestseller on the charts telling you how to lose weight and maximize your heart health. Try to avoid the trends. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re just trying to sell you something. Common sense has a lot to do with it. Surely you know by now that fruits and vegetables are good and cookies and ice cream are bad. Make sure you aren’t surprised and check out these foods that may seem like reasonable choices but are actually very bad for your heart.
It might be low in calories and even low in fat, but white bread is not heart-friendly, and neither are food products made from the same refined grains as white bread. This includes rice, pizzas, and anything else that reduces the healthy whole grains into a milled white product.
An Italian study in 2010 focused on women and the way their hearts responded to white bread. White bread and white carbohydrates like rice have a high glycemic index, and the body has a harder time processing those carbs in a healthy way. This puts a lot of strain on the heart. White bread is digested almost immediately by your body, which seems to be a large part of the problem. The diet fix is easy enough. Instead of reaching for a loaf of white bread, make a sandwich with whole grain bread and switch from white rice to brown. If you love to make pizzas, trade out the white pizza dough for a whole wheat crust (and don’t forget to pile the pizza with veggies). The whole grains are far more heart healthy.
Can you believe it? If you’re a soda drinker, you probably thought you were making the healthy choice by giving up your regular soda for a diet soda. It’s true that you’re saving calories and instead of digesting sugar you’re drinking a sugar substitute. However, any type of soda is bad for your heart, even those low calorie brands you may have been clinging to. The added sugar to regular colas and other flavors of carbonated beverages is terrible for your heart, and if you drink more than a can per day, you’re ingesting way more sugar than the American Heart Association recommends. Too much sugar and soda can also lead to obesity, which is a big problem for your heart health.
Diet soda has been studied and the results might surprise you: you are 61 percent more likely to have a cardiovascular problem in your lifetime if you drink a low calorie soda every day than if you avoided soda altogether. Put down the soda—all sodas—and fill up on water whenever you can. If you need something else, try unsweetened iced tea or flavored seltzer water.
Soup from a Can
Your grocery store probably has an entire aisle dedicated to cans of soup. Many of the labels promise things that you think would be just right: low fat and low calories. However, if you read the label more carefully, you will see that there is a lot of sodium added to those cans of soup. Even the healthy ones. The extra sodium will raise your blood pressure, causing your heart to work a little bit harder than it ought to. High blood pressure leads to a whole series of cardiovascular problems, increasing your risk for having a heart attack or a stroke.
The exact level of unhealthy really depends on the brand and the type of soup. However, if the can of chicken and rice soup that you thought was a healthy lunch turns out to have over 1,200 mg of sodium per serving, you are dangerously close to exceeding your sodium limit for the day with just one bowl of that soup. If you are over 50, you really need to pay attention to sodium. It’s also important for people who are diabetic or struggling with kidney problems.
Look for low sodium varieties of soup, and read the label because many of those are still too high. Try making your own homemade soup. You can control how much salt is added and you might find you like the taste of your own soup better than something that has been processed and canned.
Have you been popping some popcorn in the evenings, thinking that whole grain healthy treat is much better for you than the bag of chips you’d normally be tearing into? Well, it’s probably better than the chips, but you’re still not making a heart healthy choice
Lots of microwave popcorn brands include trans fats in their product. Trans fats are directly related to raising your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering your good cholesterol (HDL). When there’s too much cholesterol in your blood, it hardens into a plaque that lines your arteries, making it harder for the blood to flow. That could lead to heart attacks and strokes, so the trans fats are no good.
Check your popcorn label and find out if you should put it back. Stay away from movie theater popcorn too…it will do your heart no favors. Get one of those vintage air poppers if you want to make popcorn at home, or cook it on the stovetop. You can still have your popcorn; just make sure you’re not getting a sneaky dose of trans fats with it.
Just like the popcorn, you probably think you’re making a good choice when you reach for pretzels instead of chips. Those pretzels are full of simple carbohydrates and sodium. The pretzel is essentially created from white flour and salt. There is literally nothing nutritious about it. They might be lower in calories and fat than potato chips or nachos, but they are still doing damage to your heart. You can see your blood pressure rise and your heart disease set in every time you open a bag of pretzels. Trade them in for a handful of nuts, and your heart will be happier. You’ll still get the crunch and the flavor, but without the bad carbs and the excessive salt. Other ideal snacks include vegetables dipped in hummus, a pile of berries, or even a simple apple with all of its fabulous fiber.
When you use milk or cream with a full fat content, you are raising your bad cholesterol to levels that are too much for your heart to take. Even Greek yogurt—a food presumed to be healthy—has seven grams of saturated fat per serving. That’s too much, so you need to scale back on dairy in the interests of keeping your heart healthy.
So, scrap the pretzels and pass on the diet soda. Now that you know what foods are surprisingly unhealthy for your heart, it’s time to clean out your pantry and make some changes to your grocery list. One of the best things you can do when you’re shopping or cooking is read every label carefully. Your heart needs foods that are high in fiber and whole grains. Skip the sodium whenever you can, and avoid the carbohydrates that are too easily and quickly absorbed by your body before they can be turned into energy or anything good. Your heart needs fresh fruits and vegetables, not foods that come in cans and packages. Drink lots of water, get your exercise, and make the best choices you can for your overall health. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or if you continue to run into confusing information about what’s good for your heart and what’s not.
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