By Sarah Klein, The Huffington Post
You know about the foods that can help protect you from heart problems. They lower cholesterol and blood pressure, fight plaque build up and reduce inflammation.
But more than 2,150 Americans die from heart disease every day, making it the leading cause of death for both women and men, according to the American Heart Association. So even if your daily diet contains some heart-healthy fare like salmon and oatmeal, your heart could still be at risk.
In honor of American Heart Month, we’ve rounded up some of the worst foods for your heart.
1. Processed Meat
Hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and deli meats — even lean ones like turkey — are made with loads of sodium and preservatives, often including nitrates and nitrites, both of which have been linked to heart problems. “With processing, you lose control over the quality of the ingredients,” says Cynthia Thaik, M.D., a Los Angeles-based cardiologist.
Processed meats are also higher in saturated fat and lower in protein than any red meat you could prepare yourself, writes director of the Yale Prevention Research Center and HuffPost blogger David Katz.
Not convinced to stay away? Processed meats have also been linked to a higher risk of diabetes and pancreatic cancer.
2. Red Meat
Yes, the processed picks are worse for your heart, but that doesn’t mean you should go wild for steak. Instead, consider it more of a treat than a staple in your diet: It’s still high in saturated fat, even when it’s unprocessed. “I don’t want to suggest that we have to go [completely] plant-based,” Thaik says, “but moderation is always the key.”
If you’re not planning on changing your carnivore ways anytime soon, at the very least pick a lean cut of beef, which, according to the USDA, contains less than 10 grams of total fat and 4.5 grams of saturated fat. Or opt for extra-lean, with five grams of total fat and less than two of saturated fat. Of the 29 cuts that meet these regulations, five are extra-lean, according to the Mayo Clinic, including eye of round roast or steak, sirloin tip side steak, top round roast and steak, bottom round roast and steak, and top sirloin steak.
That cheesy slice may contain as much as two thirds of your daily recommended limit of saturated fat, according to Real Age, which is found mostly in animal products like beef, pork, butter, cream, and milk. The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 7 percent of total daily calories from saturated fat. (Based on a 2,000-calories-a-day diet, that totals out to about 15 grams a day of saturated fat).
And even though you may think it’s “just cheese,” many dairy products are actually highly processed, Thaik says. To lighten up, skip extra cheese and top with veggies instead of pepperoni or sausage.
4. Alfredo Sauce
When you consider that the ingredients in this heavy sauce are butter, cream, and cheese, it’s easy to see why serving up this pasta dish would pose saturated fat problems — especially if you’re dining out where sauce is ladled over piles of noodles.
If you really love an alfredo dish every now and again, ask for the sauce on the side and stick to just a tablespoon or two. If you’re making your own at home, try a lightened-up recipe, like this one from SparkPeople, which replaces butter with olive oil, cream with skim milk and cuts down on the amount of cheese.
5. Trans Fats
These fatty acids are created through processes that make vegetable oils more solid, according to the American Heart Association. They’re cheap to produce, are used to make packaged and prepared foods last longer and can be reused in frying. But trans fats raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol while also lowering HDL or “good” cholesterol, thereby putting your heart at risk.
While a number of manufacturers have cut back on trans fat use in light of these health risks, packaged snacks, baked goods, and some margarines may still contain it, according to EatingWell. Look for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on ingredients lists and beware the “zero trans fat” labels — many are hiding .5 grams and rounding down to zero. But considering that the AHA recommends getting no more than two grams a day, that adds up, and fast!
6. Fried Foods
As restaurants use their frying oil over and over again, the fat becomes more and more saturated, according to Live Science. And, as mentioned previously, trans fats are often lurking. Even though some restaurants may have cut back in the face of mounting health concerns, a number of joints still fry with solid oils like shortening, Thaik says.
However, a 2012 study found that how you fry makes a big difference. Among 41,000 Spanish adults, researchers found no link between fried food consumption and heart problems, likely because cooking with heart-healthy olive oil is more common than in the United States, TIME reported.
“When we think of heart disease, a lot of people think cholesterol and fat, but we know that sugar, as it relates to obesity and the effect it has on insulin, has a lot to do with the development of artherosclerosis,” Thaik says. In fact, drinking one sugary beverage a day leads to a 20 percent increase in a man’s risk of having a heart attack, according to a 2012 study, even if those empty calories aren’t causing weight gain, CNN reported. Soda has previously been linked to increased rates of heart disease in women, as well.
And diet soda isn’t any better. A 2012 study found that a daily diet soda increased risk for stroke, heart attack, and death, although the exact cause is not yet fully understood.
8. Fast Food
There’s little on the drive-thru menu that isn’t loaded with saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, or sodium, making most of your orders recipes for disaster. And the consequences for the heart are nearly immediate. A 2012 study examined the effects of fast food on the arteries after just one meal and found that the ability of the blood vessels to dilate dropped by 24 percent, YouBeauty reported.
“Not just fast food but processed food in general has a very high sodium content just by the pure nature of having to do the preservation,” Thaik says. Soups and soy sauce are obvious culprits, she says, but saltwater sushi and even bread can be more surprising sources of salt.