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December 13, 2011
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Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart
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Get your copy of Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart

Despite major advances in drugs and medical treatments, maintaining a healthy diet, being physically active, and not smoking are still the best approaches to preventing heart disease. Improving your diet lowers your risk for heart disease in many ways, including helping to lower high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as preventing obesity and improving the function of your heart and blood vessels. Fortunately, a heart-healthy diet is relatively easy to define, and you don’t have to give up great-tasting food to eat for your heart.

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Avoid these foods for a healthier heart

Improving your diet lowers your risk for heart disease in many ways, including helping to lower high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as preventing obesity and improving the function of your heart and blood vessels.

If you are watching your heart health, the following foods should not make it onto your meal plan very often. In fact, if you can cut them out of your diet, your heart will be healthier for it.

Processed meats

How much to eat: Preferably none, or at most 2 servings per week.

Serving size: 2–3 ounces.

The evidence. Processed meats are those preserved using salts, nitrites, or other preservatives. They include hot dogs, bacon, sausage, salami, and other deli meats, including deli ham, turkey, bologna, and chicken. Long-term observational studies have found that the worst types of meats for the heart are those that are processed.

Why it harms the heart. It’s likely that the high levels of salt and preservatives found in processed meats are part of the problem.

Highly refined and processed grains and carbohydrates

How much to eat: Preferably none, or at most 7 servings per week.

Serving size: 1 ounce.

The evidence. Many studies have linked whole grain intake — in place of starches (like potatoes) and refined carbohydrates (like white bread, white rice, and low-fiber breakfast cereals) — to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and possibly stroke. Whole grains are also linked to lower weight gain over time. This makes sense, considering that whole grains lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and may improve blood vessel function and reduce hunger.

Why it harms the heart. Refined or processed foods include white bread, white rice, low-fiber breakfast cereals, sweets and sugars, and other refined or processed carbohydrates. Why aren’t these foods healthy? First, high levels of processing remove many of the most healthful components in whole grains, such as dietary fiber, minerals, phytochemicals, and fatty acids. Second, high levels of processing destroy the food’s natural structure. For example, eating a food made of finely milled oats (e.g., Cheerios) or grains (e.g., typically finely milled whole-grain bread) produces much higher spikes in blood sugar than less-processed versions such as steel-cut oats or stone-ground bread. Third, processing often adds many ingredients that are less healthy, particularly trans fats, sodium, and sugars. Fourth, some research shows that fructose is metabolized differently than other sugars, in a way that increases the liver’s production of new fat. Fructose represents about half of the sugar in sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose (found in cane sugar and beet sugar). That’s not to suggest that you never eat a slice of pie or white bread — just make them an occasional treat rather than a regular part of your diet.

Soft drinks and other sugary drinks

How much to eat: Preferably none, or at most seven 8-ounce servings per week (one 8-ounce serving per day).

The evidence. Americans are drinking more and more of their calories instead of — or in addition to — eating them. Most of the increase is from sugary drinks, especially sodas, sweetened fruit drinks, and sports drinks. A 12-ounce can of soda contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of table sugar. Diet sodas are sugar-free or low in calories, but have no nutrients.

Why it harms the heart. Sugary drinks have all the same ill effects on the heart as highly refined and processed carbohydrates. Research also shows that your body does not compute the calories you ingest in liquid form in the same way as it does the calories you take in from solid foods. So if you add a soda to your meal, you are likely to eat about the same amount of calories from the rest of your food as if you drank water instead. The soda calories are just “added on.” In addition to the other harms of highly refined and processed carbohydrates, sugary drinks also increase your chances of weight gain.