5 of the Worst Foods for Your Heart

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Older woman on a park bench suffering heart pain or difficulty breathing
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Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, causes more deaths each year in the United States than all types of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And stroke is responsible for one out of every 19 deaths in the U.S., according to the same source.

Factors like not getting enough physical exercise, stress and underlying health conditions can contribute to heart disease. But a non-heart-healthy diet can also increase the risk of stroke, heart attack and cardiovascular disease, according to the AHA.

Even worse, you may not even realize just how damaging your diet can be to your heart. Some of the worst foods for your heart may even be a regular part of your daily diet.

Read on for some of the worst types of food and drink for your heart, and alternatives for better heart health.

Fatty red meats

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Step away from that cheeseburger or juicy steak if you want to protect your heart health. Research indicates that people with diets high in red meat have triple the levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) of people who primarily eat white meat or non-meat protein sources, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). TMAO is a chemical formed by gut bacteria that worsens cholesterol deposits in the artery wall and is associated with heart disease.

The good news is that high TMAO levels were reversible among participants in a study conducted by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic. When study participants discontinued their red meat diet, replacing it with a white meat or non-meat diet for one month, their TMAO levels subsided.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting red meat and choosing fish and poultry instead. Just make sure you trim away fatty areas and skin from those meats before cooking for even better heart health.

Soda and other sugary drinks

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Next time you want to grab a soda, energy drink, sports drink, sweetened sparkling water or a juice that’s loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, refresh yourself with a glass of water or another beverage that doesn’t contain a high sugar content instead.

Consuming high-sugar drinks frequently is associated with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, factors that contribute to heart disease, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. But it’s not just your heart that high-sugar beverages can harm.

Research also links frequent consumption of high-sugar drinks with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, kidney diseases, liver disease, tooth decay and gout, which is a type of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC recommends switching to plain water, 100% fruit juice or water sweetened with a splash of 100% fruit juice instead of reaching for a sugary beverage.

High-fat dairy products

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Frequently consuming dairy products that have a high-fat content — such as whole-fat milk, butter or stick margarine, cream and cream cheese — can raise your risk for heart disease, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

You don’t have to live a totally dairy-free life for heart health, however. HHS recommends choosing low-fat dairy options instead. For example, instead of whole milk, use fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk or soy milk supplemented with calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D.

Rather than cooking with butter, switch to vegetable oils such as canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean or sunflower to keep your heart healthy. Just make sure you avoid coconut and palm oils, which are high-fat oils.

Salt

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Most Americans (about 90%) eat too much sodium, increasing the risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart attack, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And the scary part is that it’s easy to unwittingly overload on sodium. Even if you’re careful about how much salt you shake onto your food or meals that you’re cooking, salt is present in most processed foods, even ones you may not suspect like bread, sauces, condiments and salad dressings.

The good news is that it’s easy to avoid overloading on sodium by checking the nutrition facts label on foods before you buy and choosing foods labeled “low-sodium” or “no salt added.”

To help protect heart health, choose foods that have a sodium content of 5% daily value (DV) or less. And definitely stay away from foods with greater than a 20% DV, which is high.

Alcohol

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Drinking alcoholic beverages regularly can raise your blood pressure, increase fats in your blood that lead to high cholesterol and worsen or raise your risk for heart failure, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

The NHLBI recommends limiting your alcohol intake or cutting out alcohol altogether. If you do drink alcohol, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.