Unhealthy Foods For The Heart

The culprits: unhealthy foods for the heart


The heart is one of the most important organs in the body, as it pumps oxygenated blood to other vital organs such as the brain and kidneys. Maintaining a healthy heart is therefore paramount for one’s overall well-being. 

The heart has four chambers. The right side receives blood from the body and pumps it to the lungs, where the blood collects oxygen. The oxygenated blood then returns to the heart’s left chambers, where is pumped at top speed to the rest of the body. The heart is, therefore, a tireless organ that pumps life-sustaining blood throughout our bodies, ensuring the vitality of every cell. 

Whilst genetics and lifestyle choices play crucial roles in heart health, diet is a significant factor that can either support or jeopardize cardiovascular function.  Unfortunately, in this modern day, due to our busy lifestyles, we find that our diet is rife with pitfalls characterised by an overabundance of processed and fast foods saturated with sugars, unhealthy fats and excessive sodium, all of which can lead to various heart-related issues. 

Conditions like coronary heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure) and obesity have become alarmingly prevalent, underscoring the urgency of re-evaluating our food choices. By understanding the impact of our dietary decisions and making informed choices, we can take proactive steps towards safeguarding our most vital organ.

Through awareness and a commitment to heart-friendly nutrition, we embark on a journey towards a healthier, more vibrant life. This article aims to shed light on some of the most detrimental foods for heart health based on scientific evidence.

Harmful fats: Trans and saturated fats

Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils, are a type of unhealthy synthetic fat commonly found in margarine, baked goods and fried foods. Despite attempts to ban them, they persist in some products. Similarly, foods high in saturated fats, such as red meat, full-fat dairy products and certain oils like coconut and palm oil, elevate cholesterol levels and heighten the risk of heart disease. Replacing saturated fats with healthier options like unsaturated fats (found in olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish) can improve heart health.1,2

Both fats have been strongly linked to negative effects on heart health, such as:

  • Increasing "bad" Cholesterol (LDL), which is associated with the build-up of plaque in arteries, leads to ischaemic heart conditions such as angina and heart attacks, conditions characterised by the build-up of plaque in the arteries.1,3
  • Reducing "good" Cholesterol (HDL) helps remove excess cholesterol from the bloodstream.
  • Promoting inflammation is a key factor in the development of heart diseases. Chronic inflammation is a significant contributor to the development and progression of heart disease.4
  • Destruction of the inner lining of blood vessels and, therefore, their functions. This can disrupt the regulation of blood pressure and the prevention of blood clots.3,4
  • Saturated fats can lead to an increased tendency for blood to clot. This can raise the risk of thrombosis, a condition where blood clots form within blood vessels, potentially leading to heart attacks or strokes.4,5

Sugary beverages

Sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, fruit juices, and energy drinks are laden with added sugars that adversely affect heart health. Regular consumption of sugary drinks has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, impacting the cardiovascular system by:

  • Sugary beverages are a concentrated source of added sugars that contribute to excess calories without providing essential nutrients. Regular consumption has been strongly associated with weight gain and obesity, both of which are significant risk factors for heart disease.5
  • The high sugar content in these beverages leads to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Over time, this can contribute to insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, which is a significant risk of developing heart disease.6
  • Excessive sugar consumption – particularly in liquid form – has been linked to higher blood pressure levels. High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke.7
  • Excess sugar content can lead to increased inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, both of which are implicated in the development and progression of heart disease.8

Excessive sodium

A high-sodium diet, prevalent in processed foods like canned soups and salty snacks, poses risks to heart health. The recommended daily intake limit of sodium is no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day and, ideally, less than 1,500 mg for optimal heart health.3 Below are some of the ways by which excessive sodium negatively impacts the cardiovascular system:

  • Causes high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.5,9
  • Sodium causes the body to retain water, leading to oedema (swelling), particularly in the lower extremities of the bodies. This can strain the heart and exacerbate existing heart conditions.10
  • This leads to changes in the structure and function of arteries, promoting arterial stiffness and increasing the risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes.11

Refined grains

Refined grains like white bread, white rice and most breakfast cereals lack fibre and nutrients, causing rapid blood sugar spikes. This can contribute to insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease. Opting for whole grains like whole wheat bread and brown rice provides more fibre and nutrients that promote heart health.12,13 Here's how they impact the cardiovascular system:

  • Refined grains have a high glycaemic index, meaning they are quickly converted to sugar in the bloodstream. This rapid spike in blood sugar can contribute to insulin resistance, a condition associated with an increased risk of heart disease.14
  • They are stripped of their bran and germ layers during processing, which removes fibre and essential nutrients. Dietary fibre is crucial for heart health as it helps lower cholesterol levels and supports healthy digestion.15
  • Regular has been associated with weight gain and obesity, which are major risk factors for heart disease.16,17
  • Diets high in refined grains have been linked to elevated triglyceride (a type of fat) levelsin the blood. They are also associated with an increased risk of heart disease.18


Mindfully selecting of the foods we consume is crucial for maintaining a healthy heart. By limiting or avoiding trans fats, sugary beverages, excessive sodium, saturated fats, and refined grains, individuals can significantly reduce their risk of heart-related issues. Embracing a balanced diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods can serve as a cornerstone for optimal heart health. Remember, a healthy heart is a gift that keeps on giving, contributing to a longer, more vibrant life.


  1. Mozaffarian D, Katan MB, Ascherio A, et al. Trans Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(15):1601-1613. doi:10.1056/NEJMra054035
  2. Malik VS, Popkin BM, Bray GA, Després JP, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes: A meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2010;33(11):2477-2483. doi:10.2337/dc10-1079
  3. Appel LJ, Brands MW, Daniels SR, Karanja N, Elmer PJ, Sacks FM. Dietary Approaches to Prevent and Treat Hypertension: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Hypertension. 2006;47(2):296-308. doi:10.1161/01.HYP.0000202568.01167.B6
  4. Mensink RP, Zock PL, Kester AD, Katan MB. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77(5):1146-1155. doi:10.1093/ajcn/77.5.1146
  5. Liu S, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, et al. A prospective study of dietary glycemic load, carbohydrate intake, and risk of coronary heart disease in US women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71(6):1455-1461. doi:10.1093/ajcn/71.6.1455
  6. Lopez-Garcia E, Schulze MB, Meigs JB, et al. (2005). Consumption of Trans Fatty Acids Is Related to Plasma Biomarkers of Inflammation and Endothelial Dysfunction. J Nutr, 135(3), 562-566. doi:10.1093/jn/135.3.562
  7. Brevetti G, Silvestro A, Schiano V, et al. (2003). Endothelial Dysfunction in Peripheral Arterial Disease Is Related to Increase in Plasma Concentrations of Soluble Cellular Adhesion Molecules. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol, 23(1), 1088-1093. doi:10.1161/01.ATV.0000069214.49749.CF
  8. Jalal DI, Smits G, Johnson RJ, Chonchol M. (2010). Increased fructose associates with elevated blood pressure. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, 21(9), 1543-1549. doi:10.1681/ASN.2009111111
  9. Stanhope KL, Schwarz JM, Keim NL, et al. (2009). Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 119(5), 1322-1334. doi:10.1172/JCI37385
  10. Graudal NA, Hubeck-Graudal T, Jürgens G. (2019). Effects of low-sodium diet vs. high-sodium diet on blood pressure, renin, aldosterone, catecholamines, cholesterol, and triglyceride (Cochrane Review). American Journal of Hypertension, 32(11), 1119-1129. doi:10.1093/ajh/hpz153
  11. Mente A, O'Donnell M, Rangarajan S, et al. (2014). Association of Urinary Sodium and Potassium Excretion with Blood Pressure. New England Journal of Medicine, 371(7), 601-611. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1311889
  12. O'Donnell MJ, Yusuf S, Mente A, et al. (2014). Urinary Sodium and Potassium Excretion and Risk of Cardiovascular Events. JAMA, 311(9), 912-921. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.2852
  13. Mozaffarian D, Pischon T, Hankinson SE, et al. (2004). Dietary intake of trans fatty acids and systemic inflammation in women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(4), 606-612. doi:10.1093/ajcn/79.4.606
  14. Vogel RA, Corretti MC, Plotnick GD. (1997). Effect of a single high-fat meal on endothelial function in healthy subjects. American Journal of Cardiology, 79(3), 350-354. doi:10.1016/S0002-9149(96)00738-6
  15. Tsai MY, Johnson C, Kao WH, et al. (2007). Cholesteryl ester transfer protein genetic polymorphisms, HDL cholesterol, and subclinical cardiovascular disease in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis, 192(2), 204-214. doi:10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2006.05.032
  16. Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH, et al. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews, 67(4), 188-205. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x
  17. Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. (2011). Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. New England Journal of Medicine, 364(25), 2392-2404. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1014296
  18. Bujalska IJ, Kumar S, Stewart PM. (1997). Does central obesity reflect "Cushing's disease of the omentum"? The Lancet, 349(9060), 1210-1213. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(96)12025-5
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Akosua Ofosu-Asiedu

Doctor of Medicine – MBChB, Aberdeen University, Scotland, UK
Biochemistry – BSc Hons Biochemistry(First class), London Metropolitan University, UK

Dr Akos is a GP trainee with specialist in sports medicine and nutrition. She has several years of experience as an athlete and enjoys writing about anything sports related. She also has a number of years experience as a medical writer and editor and enjoys journalism in her spare time.

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