The 9 Worst Foods for Your Heart
Keep your heart healthy with our expert tips on how to avoid the foods bad for the heart, from canned soups to candy.
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
What not to eat for your heart
Eating well for your heart is just as important as avoiding foods that are bad for your heart. Prioritizing whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables is the easy part. But what about pizza, French fries, and candy? They have ingredients like trans fats, refined grains, and sugar than can increase the risk of heart disease and other cardiac issues. According to the 2019 study A Clinician’s Guide to Healthy Eating for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, poor diet is a leading contributor to cardiovascular disease. That means cutting bad-for-you options out is a crucial way to help you stay healthy. Keep your ticker in tip-top shape by avoiding the following worst foods for your heart.
Get The Healthy @Reader’s Digest newsletter
Processed and cured meats
Processed and cured meats, including cold cuts, bacon and hot dogs, are some of the worst foods for your heart because of their high amount of saturated fats. Plaque buildup, hardening of the arteries, and saturated fats are all connected, according to Barbara George, MD, the director of the Center for Cardiovascular Health Medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island. “Saturated fats raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol, or LDL, as compared to ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL,” she says.
A 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found a link between red and processed meat and a higher risk of heart disease and death. But research on processed meat being bad for your heart goes back some time. A research review from 2012 in Current Atherosclerosis Reports by Harvard University researchers found that eating processed meats is associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease. (Note the study compared processed and unprocessed red meat.)
The bottom line: Limit cold cut sandwiches and save hot dogs for a rare indulgence. If you plan to continue eating animal meats, turn to the best meat options such as lean red meat, skinless chicken, ground turkey or fish, especially fish rich in omega-3s like salmon, cod and tuna, Dr. George suggests.
Refined and processed grains
Some of the worst foods for your heart are processed foods, according to Nieca Goldberg, MD, the medical director of NYU Women’s Heart Program in New York. “Processed foods cause sharp increases in sugar and insulin levels,” Dr. Goldberg explains. “And then the levels sharply decrease, leaving you more hungry, and then you eat more.”
Processed foods often contain refined grains, including white flour or white rice. A 2017 study in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine found that refined grain intake was associated with a 9.4% higher risk of heart disease. Note that not all processed foods necessarily will raise insulin levels, more so those with fast-acting and refined sugars.
Deep-fried foods are one of the top foods that are bad for your ticker, according to Dr. Goldberg. Eating deep-fried foods contributes to heart disease risk factors, including high blood pressure and obesity. A 2015 review in Nutrients found that eating fried food four or mere times 5per week is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, two observational studies on men and women from the U.S. found that frequently eating fried foods increases the risk of developing heart disease. Bake, broil or roast your food for a healthy alternative to frying, Dr. Goldberg recommends.
Soda and sugar-sweetened beverages (including juice)
Many people associate high triglycerides (a type of fat that circulates in the blood) with high-fat foods. People may not know, however, that concentrated sweets such as soda and other sugary beverages can actually rapidly raise blood triglyceride levels, according to Westchester, New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist Malina Malkani, creator of Solve Picky Eating.
Untreated high triglyceride levels may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. One 15-year study in JAMA Internal Medicine on added sugar and heart disease found that people who had 25% of their daily calories from sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who had less than 10% added sugar make up their daily calories.
Your sweet tooth could get you into lots of trouble when it comes to heart health. Just like sugary drinks aren’t great for your heart, it’s the same idea with candy. “Dense sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes and hypertension—all risk factors for heart disease and stroke,” Dr. George says.
Satisfy your sugar cravings with fruit slices and unprocessed peanut butter. You get the crunch while benefitting from more protein and fiber. Try your best to stick to whole foods, fresh vegetables and fruits. If your hankering can’t be ignored, turn to nontraditional options like SmartSweets, which has low-sugar treats that are naturally flavored with no artificial sweeteners.
Some studies suggest that moderate drinkers are at a lower risk of heart disease compared to heavy drinkers and non-drinkers. This information, however, is not a license to binge drink. In fact, one of the worst things for your heart is alcohol, according to Dr. George, because of the calories and sugar in alcohol.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men. “The difference is that women metabolize alcohol differently, and there is also a link between higher alcohol consumption and other conditions such as breast cancer and addiction,” Dr. George says. Keep an eye on your glasses of wine and consider ways to drink less. And the American Cancer Society updated their guidelines recommending against all alcohol consumption.
Canned soups and vegetables
Some canned soups and vegetables are high in sodium and fat, making them a poor choice for heart health, according to Dr. Goldberg. “Sodium is a preservative that is often added to foods during the canning process to increase shelf life and palatability,” Malkani explains.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting daily sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day. The ideal daily limit is 1,500 mg for most adults, especially those with elevated blood pressure.
But canned foods offer a convenient and affordable way to meet daily recommendations for foods like vegetables, legumes and fruits. “People can incorporate canned foods into meals and still stay within recommended sodium limits for optimal heart health by reading food labels, choosing canned products that are labeled, ‘low-sodium,’ or ‘low salt,’ or ‘no added salt,’ and rinsing canned foods like beans and vegetables with water before using,” Malkani says.
Foods containing trans fats
Foods packed with artificial trans fats are some of the most harmful when it comes to heart health, says Malkani. “Artificial trans fats have been shown to lower HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol levels and raise LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease and stroke,” she says. In one 14-year review of 80,000 women, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found a positive connection between heart disease and eating foods containing trans fats.
In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that trans fats were unsafe because of research connecting them to poor heart health. Manufacturers were given three years to remove them from food. But the FDA notes that food containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, sometimes listed on the ingredient label as partially hydrogenated oils, can claim they have zero.
Malkani points out that there may still be some products on the market that manufacturers created before the ban. Those goods could contain artificial trans fats. Keep an eye on non-dairy coffee creamers, microwave popcorns, frozen doughs, pastries, pizzas, fried foods and shortenings.
Condiments and sauces contain salt. This can raise blood pressure or worsen heart failure symptoms for someone with high blood pressure or heart failure, according to Dr. Goldberg. Try your best to eat unhealthy condiments sparingly and ask for them on the side when you dine out. There is also a lot of added sugar, such as high fructose corn syrup in ketchup, for example, in sauces or condiments.
- Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of NYU Women's Heart Program
- Barbara George, MD the director of the Center for Cardiovascular Health Medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island
- Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN, creator of Solve Picky Eating and author of Simple & Safe Baby-Led Weaning
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Trans Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Trans Fat"
- International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine: "Dietary refined grain intake could increase the coronary heart disease risk: evidence from a meta-analysis"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Fried-food consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease: a prospective study in 2 cohorts of US women and men"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "High Blood Triglycerides"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality"
- Current Atherosclerosis Reports: "Unprocessed Red and Processed Meats and Risk of Coronary Artery Disease and Type 2 Diabetes – An Updated Review of the Evidence"
- Alcohol Research & Health: "Moderate Drinking and Reduced Risk of Heart Disease"