As a cardiologist who has treated thousands of patients, I am often asked what foods to eat for a healthy heart.
Of course, you don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that you won’t benefit from a hearty diet of cheeseburgers, donuts and fries. But there are a number of popular choices that are actually not so good for your heart.
Here are five foods I always try to avoid eating in excess — and what I opt for instead:
Many people are surprised to learn that bread and baked goods are among the biggest contributors of sodium in our diets. High sodium intake can raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor in heart disease and stroke.
A regular bagel, for example, can contain 500 milligrams of sodium, or about one-third of what the American Heart Association recommends per day for most adults.
Refined flours in bread can also spike our blood sugar. And remember, just because it’s brown doesn’t mean it’s better.
For fiber content, I try to look for visible grains and seeds throughout each slice, and aim for at least three grams of fiber per 100 calories.
Too much butter isn’t healthy for your heart, but alternatives like margarine aren’t always better.
Before the FDA implemented a ban on partially hydrogenated oils in 2015, there were more trans fats — which raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol — in margarine. But just because the trans fatty acids are gone doesn’t make margarine automatically good for us.
Many on the market are made with palm oil, which contains high amounts of saturated fat that can raise your cholesterol levels.
Margarine made with olive oil or flaxseed oil is a better choice. Olive oil contains only minor levels of saturated fats and no trans fats. Another great butter substitute that I love is mashed avocado.
3. Skimmed milk
Milk and milk products containing milk fat are major sources of saturated fatty acids. And while skimmed milk may be the best option, I always encourage people to switch it up and try alternatives.
Almond, cashew, and macadamia nut milks are higher in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, as are soy, hemp, and flax milks.
If you drink milk because it’s a good source of calcium, know that calcium is found in many different foods. Almonds, broccoli, kale, oranges, beans, edamame, figs, and canned salmon are all heart-healthy options that can add more calcium to your diet.
4. Diet Soda
It may not contain sugar, but diet sodas can still mess with your biochemistry. Recent studies have revealed that the artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas can affect the production of important proteins in our gut that protect against obesity and diabetes.
For refreshing drink options, I like to go with tea, which is full of heart-healthy compounds that help fight inflammation and cell damage. Both black tea and green tea have been linked to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke.
Another great option is a glass of sparkling water with fresh fruit and mint leaves.
5. Granola bars
Although they may seem healthy, most granola bars contain more than just the oats, nuts, and fruit typically highlighted on the front of the package.
Many are also loaded with added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and other counterproductive ingredients, like palm oil.
I much prefer raw nuts as a satisfying snack on their own. When I eat oats, I usually have a breakfast of oatmeal, using dried or fresh fruit as sweeteners.
Dr. Elisabeth Claude is a cardiologist and founder of Stage One Foods. Trained at the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, Dr. Klodas has published dozens of scientific papers throughout her career, written a book for patients, “Kill the Giant: The Power of Prevention to Beat Heart Disease,″ and was a founding editor of Cardiosmart.org.
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