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6 Foods and Drinks That Wreck Heart Health

Junk food and soft drinks

Most people know that some foods just aren't good for heart health, like deep-fried chicken or an ooey-gooey ice cream sundae. Yet they choose to eat these foods anyway, ignoring the silent damage that may be building up in their hearts and blood vessels.

The wrong foods can lead to excess weight or obesity. They also can cause bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and other blood lipids to rise along with an increase in blood sugar levels, according to experts at Harvard Health.

When you’re trying to avoid heart disease, make it a point to limit the following six types of foods to just an occasional indulgence or, better yet, make them off-limits and your heart will thank you.

1. Sugar-sweetened beverages

Sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks (some of which might be just a few percentage points of actual fruit juice) are high in calories and have no or low nutritional value. The body doesn't recognize them as being satisfying, so chalk them all up to just wasted calories — wasted calories that can increase your risk for weight gain.

Also, because there's no fiber or other nutrients to slow digestion, these drinks can cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly, according to Harvard Health. That helps to explain why even 100% fruit juice can be a problem. According to an editorial in JAMA in 2019, people often think that juice is a healthy option when it’s made from real fruit. But fruit juice contains the same amount of calories as other sugar-sweetened beverages. And because it's also lacking in fiber and is so high in sugar, it can cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly, possibly increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes, which is a known risk factor for heart disease.

Experts recommend limiting the consumption of all these drinks. The ideal would be to not have any, but the Harvard experts advise not having more than one 8-ounce drink a day. For young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting juice to just a small serving a day — no more than 6 ounces.

2. Processed meats

Americans may love processed meats, but these foods — cured in salt, nitrites and other preservatives — do more damage to heart health than other animal fats do, due in part to their high salt content and to the fatty foods-heart disease link.

Processed meats include:

  • Bacon
  • Sausages
  • Deli meats, including ham, turkey, bologna and chicken
  • Hot dogs
  • Salami

Your best health move is to forgo these foods altogether. If you just can't give them up, try to limit servings to just 2 or 3 ounces no more than twice a week.

3. Refined carbohydrates

The list of refined carbohydrates is long. Think white foods — white bread, white rice, white pasta, white flour (and foods made with white flour, such as breakfast cereals and sweets). During processing, these foods are stripped of many nutrients, like fiber, minerals and fatty acids, according to Harvard Health. Also, the process to refine these foods starts to break them down. That means the body doesn't have to work as hard to digest them, and that can lead to a faster rise in blood sugar. Over time, that can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Another issue with refined carbohydrates is that unhealthy additives, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are often added during processing.

If you can avoid eating processed foods, it's a good bet for your heart health. The most you should have each week is a max of seven 1-ounce servings, according to Harvard.

4. Saturated fats and trans fats

Saturated fats are those that typically come from animal sources, such as fatty meat or full-fat dairy products and butter, according to the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). The agency recommends that no more than 10% of your calories should come from saturated fats. The Food & Drug Administration recently banned artificial trans fats, (or partially hydrogenated oils) that were used in many packaged foods to achieve a longer shelf life, because of their link to heart attacks and death. But some products containing significant amounts of trans fats may still be on store shelves through 2021. Also, trans fats might still be in some packaged foods in very small quantities, so be sure to read labels to avoid it completely. Note that a nutrition label can state 0 grams of trans fat if the food has less than 0.5 grams per serving, so you need to read the ingredients list if you want to be sure there’s no partially hydrogenated oil because it still has to be listed there.

5. Salt/sodium

You might have to play detective to uncover all the sources of salt in your diet. It's found in a lot of foods, even foods you might not expect it to be in.

Start by reading labels to check for sodium, recommends the NHLBI. Limit your use of pre-made foods and ready-to-make mixes for dishes like pasta or rice, as these often have added sodium. Eating at home and cooking from scratch also can help you control the amount of sodium in your meal.

The NHLBI also recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily for people 14 and older. If you've already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you'll need to have even less. Check with your doctor to find out what’s safe for you.

6. Alcohol

Maybe you've heard that a glass or two of red wine is good for your health, but alcohol has a good side and a bad side when it comes to heart health.

As with sugar-sweetened beverages, the calories in alcohol have no nutritional value. All those excess calories can add up to excess weight.

Too much alcohol can also affect the levels of fat in your blood. It can raise triglycerides, which can contribute to fat deposits on blood vessel walls. Those deposits can raise your risk for heart attack and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Heavy drinking may lead to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats and premature aging of blood vessels (not to mention the toll on your liver), according to the AHA.

Some studies have suggested that compounds in alcohol, particularly red wine, may be good for your heart. But none of those studies has been conclusive, so more research is needed. Right now, the American Heart Association isn't recommending that people drink wine to improve their heart health. If you do drink, women are urged to limit consumption to one drink a day and men to two drinks a day.

Healthy choices

So, if all these foods are off-limits or should be restricted, what can you eat?

Aim for a diet that's rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, suggests the NHLBI. Also enjoy lean meats (low-fat meat and skinless poultry), fish (especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout), low-fat or no-fat dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, soy and healthy oils, such as canola, olive, sunflower, sesame, corn, safflower and soybean.

Also, be sure not to eat more calories than you use in a day, the AHA says. Online calculators or your doctor can help you figure out what's the right amount for you. And to keep your heart as healthy as it can be, make other smart lifestyle choices. The most important is to not smoke. If you're having trouble quitting, ask your doctor what help is available to you.

Don't forget to keep moving. The AHA recommends aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderately-paced physical activity each week. If you're more ambitious, 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week will do it.

And remember: Not every day will be a perfect day. Some days, you may have a bacon cheeseburger or a piece of pie. But the overall pattern of your diet and lifestyle matters more to your heart health than the occasional days you indulge a bit more.

Article references

  1. Harvard Health. "Avoid these foods for a healthier heart." https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/avoid-these-foods-for-a-healthier-heart.
  2. JAMA. "Are fruit juices just as unhealthy as sugar-sweetened beverages?" https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2733417 
  3. JAMA. "Association of sugary beverage consumption with mortality risk in U.S. adults." https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2733424  
  4. U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "Heart-healthy lifestyle changes." https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-healthy-lifestyle-changes
  5. American Heart Association. "Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?" https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/alcohol-and-heart-health
  6. American Heart Association. "The American Heart Association diet and lifestyle recommendations." https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations 
  7. Food & Drug Administration. “Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils.” https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/final-determination-regarding-partially-hydrogenated-oils-removing-trans-fat
  8. Food & Drug Administration. “Trans fat.” https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/trans-fat.html