When you think of foods to avoid for heart health, some obvious offenders probably pop into your head: greasy meals from McDonald’s, fried food, red meat, etc. However, it’s important to remember that eating an excess of sugar can also take a serious toll on your cardiovascular health over time, putting you at risk for issues like high blood pressure and, ultimately, heart disease.
Of course, it’s no surprise that sugar is unhealthy, but what are the worst options out there when it comes to heart health? To answer this question and learn more about the dangers of high-sugar foods, we spoke to health experts Dr. Leonard Ganz, Chief Medical Officer & Division Vice President of Medical Affairs at Abbott’s Cardiac Rhythm Management division, and Sara Whipkey, registered dietitian and owner of The Plant Potential. They told us that ultra-processed foods with added sugar are the biggest culprits to look out for.
Ultra-processed foods with added sugar
When it comes to the worst sugary foods for your heart health, Dr. Ganz and Whipkey both agree that you should avoid processed foods containing added sugar. “A diet high in processed, sugary foods often leads to high blood pressure, unintentional weight gain, and inflammation, which has been linked to a variety of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease,” Whipkey warns.
Among the worst culprits are foods that are ultra-processed, which means they contain a majority of manufactured, artificial ingredients, rather than natural whole foods. As Whipkey explains, ultra-processed foods “have gone through several different types of processing, have many added ingredients, and are highly manipulated.” The ingredients in these foods have undergone extensive processing that has stripped them of all of their nutritional value, making them a terrible addition to your diet. “They provide no nutritional value, but have a lot of sugar, fat, and/or salt to reward our brains,” she says.
All that added sugar, especially, can be detrimental to practically every aspect of your overall health, including your heart health. “Added sugars can take a toll on heart health by increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and coronary artery disease,” Dr. Ganz tells us. Yikes!
Ultra-processed foods to avoid
So, now that you know how terrible sugary, ultra-processed foods can be for your heart, which ones should you be sure to avoid at the grocery store? Unfortunately, there’s no cut and dry answer for ones are the absolute worst options. However, Dr. Ganz says being wary of any food with added sugars is a good rule of thumb. “While there may not be a single worst sugary food for your heart, added sugars can creep up on you,” he says, noting that these sneaky sugars are found in foods and drinks such as:
Regular sodas, energy and sports drinks
Fruit drinks and punches
Many energy and meal replacement bars
Sweetened baked goods
Dairy desserts and milk products (including flavored yogurts)
Sweetened breakfast foods (cereals, shakes, bars, etc.)
Fancy coffee drinks like lattes or mochas
What to eat instead
We get it: sometimes there’s no stopping your sweet tooth. Luckily, when a craving for a sugary treat hits you, there are plenty of healthy options to choose from that won’t put your heart at risk. Whipkey says fruit is one of the best choices—and it doesn’t have to be boring! “Some of my favorite plant-based sweets include: nice cream (frozen bananas, cacao powder, almond butter, unsweetened plant milk, and flax seed- blend it all up for an ice cream-esque treat), minimally processed dark chocolate paired with a handful of nuts and berries, frozen grapes, and dark chocolate-dipped strawberries,” she says. Yum! Sign us up.