5 “Bad” Things You Should Be Doing for Better Heart Health

5 “Bad” Things You Should Be Doing for Better Heart Health

Extensive scientific research suggests that while genetics can certainly play a role in heart disease risk, our daily choices and habits add up and make a major impact, too. 

In fact, shifting to a more heart-smart lifestyle appears to be associated with anywhere from 50% to 80% lower risk for cardiovascular disease, according to large reviews of multiple studies.

“Long-term studies continue to show that there is a rather definable relationship between lifestyle and heart disease,” says Nadim Geloo, M.D., a Washington, D.C.-based cardiologist and senior director of medical affairs for Abbott’s structural heart business. “A person’s age, health status and lifestyle factors, which can be very unique, are critical in understanding the best practices to improve or maintain good heart health. In most cases, moderation in what you consume is key.” 

 There are certain things that may make you more likely to get heart disease, like high blood pressure, being sedentary and smoking. However, beyond that, there are a lot of rumors swirling around about what is “good” or “bad” for heart health. 

5 “Bad” Things You Should Actually Be Doing for Better Heart Health

Before we dive into some “bad” habits that can actually support heart health, it’s important to note that food and physical activity should not be correlated with moral value. No foods, drinks or workouts make you a “good” or “bad” person. We’re simply using “bad” to express the general collective sentiment about these choices … and are here with the medical consensus that you need to make informed decisions.

Despite what you may have heard on social media or on a buzzy health news segment that showcased splashy headlines about one study, here’s the truth about commonly considered “bad” things that can actually be part of a heart-smart lifestyle.

RELATED: The 10 Best Diets for Better Heart Health, Ranked by Cardiologists 

1. Eating Plenty of Carbs 

We’ll cut to the chase: “Eating carbs is not bad for your heart health,” confirms Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a Dobbs Ferry, New York-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Everyday Snack Tray.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume 45% to 65% of our total daily calories from carbs, which works out to 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates per day. The American Heart Association confirms that carbs can absolutely be part of a heart-healthy diet. They are our body’s preferred form of energy, after all. It’s just a matter of choosing wisely.

“Carbs are found in some of our healthiest foods: whole grains, fruits, veggies, beans and lentils. These foods are also all rich sources of dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Consuming a diet rich in these fibrous foods can lead to improved heart health,” says Roxana Ehsani, M.S., RD, CSSD, a Miami-based board-certified sports dietitian. “When we cut carbs out or restrict them, we put ourselves at risk for developing potential nutritional deficiencies and constipation from lack of fiber.”

Prioritize those aforementioned complex carbs when possible. You don’t need to completely eliminate simple carbs (such as 100% fruit juices and foods with added sugar) as part of a balanced diet, but rather aim to make them the minority of your total carb intake. Simple carbs are digested more quickly and can lead to a larger spike in blood sugar, or glycemic response, after meals. Over time, if elevated blood sugar becomes chronic, it isn’t ideal for heart health. (No wonder eating more fiber-rich carbs is the #1 habit to start for better blood sugar.)

“High-glycemic-index carbs can promote inflammation, diabetes, central obesity and cholesterol problems like triglyceride disorders,” says David Davidson, M.D., a cardiologist with Endeavor Health Medical Group in greater Chicago.

 2. Consuming Some Sugar

While we’re on this topic, let’s sweet talk a bit more. “Sugar confusion is rampant, with consumers still unsure of the difference between added and naturally occurring sugars,” Largeman-Roth says. 

Natural sources of sugar are found in foods like fruits, some vegetables and dairy. Added sugars are sugars that are exactly as they sound: added to foods and beverages to make them sweeter. 

On average, “Americans are eating too many foods—and especially drinks—with added sugar, and every major health organization has advised cutting back,” Largeman-Roth says, for heart health and overall well-being. “But small amounts of added sugars are fine to enjoy. And the natural sugars in fruit are a smart way to satisfy your sweet tooth and get fiber and nutrients at the same time.”

The AHA promotes sticking to 6% or less of daily calories from added sugars, which is about 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons) to 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) per day. Beyond that, aim to satisfy your sweet tooth with “nature’s candy.”

“Fruit is one of our healthiest foods, rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, and should never be cut out of the diet. Plenty of research shows all the benefits of including fruit into the diet, better mood, improved gut health and heart health too,” Ehsani adds. To reap the benefits, try to aim for about 2 cups of fruit per day.

RELATED: 10 Fruits You Should Eat Every Week, According to a Dietitian

3. Eating Protein (Including Meat) 

“Many people promote a plant-based diet, which can be quite healthy,” Davidson concedes. (A plant-centered diet has been scientifically linked to lower risk for cardiovascular disease.) “But I believe that not all animal-based foods are bad.”

Again, it depends on what kind of animal protein we’re considering—and how much. The AHA echoes the Dietary Guidelines and CDC guidance with their recommendation of 10% to 35% of daily calories from protein. This works out to about 46 to 56 grams per day, although how much protein you need per day is a hotly debated topic, and varies based on age, activity and other personal factors. 

Regardless of exactly how much protein you need, a heart-healthy diet can include fatty fish and seafood, lean cuts of meat and poultry, and plant-based protein, the experts we spoke to agree.

“Research has found that even populations who eat a lot of fish have lower risk of heart disease. Fatty fish like salmon are rich  in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory benefits and support overall heart and brain health,” Ehsani says.

High red meat consumption has been linked to heart disease, due to the saturated fat content in meat as well as a chemical called TMAO that is formed in the gut, Largeman-Roth explains. If you enjoy red meat, stick to a small portion (about 3 ounces) a few times per week as part of a balanced and variety-filled diet, and this can be just fine for your heart, she adds.

4. Choosing Full-Fat Foods

Now that we’ve covered carbs and protein, it’s time to turn to the third macronutrient: fat. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this was demonized and stripped out of as many foods as possible, it seemed. (Remember the craze around fat-free cookies, muffins and fro-yo?)

Science has shifted the narrative to show us that eating fat does not necessarily make us fat, and the AHA commends fat for aiding in cell function, nutrient absorption, hormone balance, body temperature regulation and more.

We might sound like a broken record, but again, the potential heart-health harm boils down to what kind. “Foods high in saturated fats can increase cholesterol and increase cardiovascular risk,” Davidson says. 

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature; butter, red meat, full-fat dairy, cheese, processed meats and coconut oil are examples. Due to their less flexible chemical structure, they tend to be tougher on our bodies—and hearts. 

Some nuance is required as you translate this IRL, Largeman-Roth says: “The long-held dietary advice to choose low-fat or fat-free dairy options seems to make sense since full-fat options contain saturated fat, which can increase risk of heart disease. However, a recent systematic review found that moderate consumption of full-fat dairy didn’t raise the risk of heart disease.”

For people with cholesterol levels in the normal range, eating up to 200 grams of dairy, whether low or full-fat, seems to be “perfectly fine,” Largeman-Roth says.

It’s important not to view anything—even saturated fat—in isolation. The calcium found in most dairy products is also beneficial for both blood pressure and heart health, and the probiotics that some dairy items (yogurt, aged cheese and kefir) include is a boon for gut health.

Not to mention, unsaturated fats encompass several high-fat foods you should be eating as part of a healthy eating pattern. They help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins, Ehsani explains, and support various important body functions, from digestion to healthy skin and beyond.

Nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish are all strong sources of unsaturated fat. Olive oil also deserves a special shout-out: Individuals who eat ½ tablespoon or more of olive oil per day appear to have lower rates of premature death from heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other causes, according to a 28-year study.

5. Cooking with Seed Oils

It’s time to bust a major myth: Seed oils need not be enemy No. 1. Seed oils are simply oils made from the seeds of plants, including canola, sunflower, grapeseed, cottonseed, safflower, soybean and corn.

“Seed oils have been getting a really bad rap lately,” Ehsani says. “Seed oils contain a mix of both mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Sautéing something in a pan with canola or a grapeseed oil, for instance, is perfectly safe to do.”

The rumor mill around these vegetable oils appears to boil down to a big misunderstanding about chronic inflammation versus acute inflammation. Seed oils are rich in linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that has been linked to inflammation in the past. However, linoleic acid is actually involved in our body’s natural acute inflammation response (to something like a bruise, burn or cut) rather than the chronic inflammation that’s part of the disease process. The waters also got muddier when seed oils were added to processed foods, which frequently include things like refined carbohydrates, added sugar and/or saturated fats. Those foods may not be the best for heart health, but it may be more related to those other factors than to the seed oil itself. 

Thanks to a large review of randomized controlled trials, there is now a general agreement among members of the scientific community that linoleic polyunsaturated fats don’t trigger chronic inflammation—and might even lower risk for heart disease.

In fact, consuming seed oils might help lower risk for stroke and be beneficial for overall health. In most cases, you can use omega-3-strong olive oil instead of seed oils if you like. Vegetable oil, in moderation, can totally fit in a heart-healthy diet, though.

The Bottom Line

There’s no one universal prescription for what’s “good” and “bad” for heart health. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely possible to include full-fat foods, seed oils, carbohydrates, animal protein and sugar as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

“What is considered ‘healthy’ for one person may look different from another, even when they are both in pursuit of good heart health. Regardless, it is important to focus on a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, carefully selected sources of protein, while limiting unhealthy fats, sugars and alcohol, in addition to incorporating regular exercise,” Geloo says. 

To help determine how you’re tracking on your heart health journey, schedule regular checkups with your primary care physician to discuss the current status of your heart health, as well as any other recent developments, questions or concerns, Geloo adds.

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