Eating for a healthy heart used to seem straightforward. Avoid foods heavy in cholesterol and salt, and skip the fatty cuts of meat. Easier said than done, of course. But at least you knew what to watch out for.
New research has complicated all that old heart health advice. In just the past few years, studies have found dietary cholesterol, sodium, and fat—all the classic baddies—just aren’t the heart wreckers we once thought them to be.
Even saturated fat may be in line for a pardon. “Multiple recent reports find no association between dietary saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease,” says Jeff Volek, PhD, RD, a professor of food science at The Ohio State University. While it’s true that serum saturated fatty acids—that is, saturated fat in your blood—are linked to higher rates of heart disease, Volek says swallowing saturated fat in the form of food doesn’t appear to pump up your blood’s levels of the stuff.
This falls in line with other recent findings on dietary fat and cholesterol. If a food contains something, that doesn’t necessarily mean eating it will up your body’s amounts.
But what you eat still matters. A lot. “Food can nourish our bodies, or it can poison our bodies,” says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute. (Discover how to heal 95+ health conditions naturally with Eat for Extraordinary Health & Healing.)
Here’s the current wisdom on the best and worst foods for your ticker.
— So-called “simple sugars” like the ones loaded into regular soda stoke inflammation and raise blood sugar levels, Patton says. All this can put more stress on artery walls and increase your risk for cardiovascular disease. The more soda you drink, the higher your risk soars.
— Again, anything that contains “table sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, molasses, and other sweeteners” appears to cause higher rates of oxidative stress, finds a recent study from Canada. As a result, these sweeteners—and the pies, cakes, and other treats they call home—can lead to clogged arteries, hypertension, heart failure, and other forms of CVD, the study authors say.
— Refined carbs tend to be pumped up with sugar and additives, none of which are doing your heart any favors, Patton says. Condiments like ketchup and salad dressing—as well as pasta sauces, bread, and low-fat yogurt—are more common sources of sugar and refined carbs, experts say.
— The latest research bolsters claims that butter isn’t bad for your heart. On the other hand, margarine is a source of unhealthy trans fatty acids. Those are bad news when it comes to your risk for cardiovascular disease, Patton says. Shortening is another major source of trans fats, she adds.
— Like margarine and shortening, these powdered creamers tend to be jacked up with trans fats, Patton says. The same goes for many types of microwave popcorn, breakfast bars, and anything else that lists “hydrogenated oils” on its ingredient list.
— While saturated fat may be headed for a reprieve from the health community, fatty cuts of meat—stuff like bacon or prime rib—may still spell trouble for your ticker, Patton says. She points to research linking red meat to increased levels of harmful gut bacteria. The debate over whether meat is bad for your heart will likely rage on. But in the meantime, you’re probably best sticking to leaner cuts, she says.
— Heavily processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, and most deli cuts tend to be loaded with additives. They’ve also repeatedly been linked to higher rates of heart disease, Patton says. While it has proved difficult for experts to pin down exactly which additives in these meats are to blame—Nitrates? Phosphates? Hydrocarbons?—it seems prudent to avoid them or keep your intakes low, Patton says.