The 10 worst foods for your heart

By John Murphy
Published July 14, 2020

Key Takeaways

It’s often said that you are what you eat, but if that were literally true, then Americans would look like giant hamburgers and slices of pizza. When you consider that as many as 25% to 36% of North Americans eat fast food (often fried foods) on a daily basis, then you realize that a large portion of Americans make unhealthy food a part of their regular diet—not just an occasional treat.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at 10 of the unhealthiest foods that have become everyday staples for many (if not most) Americans, and how these foods impact our heart health.


The average American eats more than 222 lb of red meat (and poultry) in a single year, according to 2018 data from the US Department of Agriculture. That much meat equals more than two Quarter Pounders per person per day. That’s a lot of burgers!

It’s also a lot of heart disease risk. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine published earlier this year found that people who ate two servings of red meat per week had a higher risk of both cardiovascular disease and premature death.

What’s in red meat that increases these risks? Meat is high in saturated fat, which ups cholesterol levels and raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. Hamburgers also tend to have a lot of salt (ie, sodium) and cheese (fat), as well as refined carbohydrates in the bun—all of which may increase heart disease risk, as you’ll see in the rest of this article.

Fried chicken

If hamburgers are a no-go, what else is on the menu? Fried chicken? No clucking way.

In a study that included more than 100,000 participants from the Women’s Health Initiative, women who ate fried chicken once a week had a 12% higher risk of cardiovascular mortality and a 13% higher risk of all-cause mortality compared with those who ate no fried chicken. (Fried fish was just as risky for cardiovascular death, the researchers found.)

But wait, fried chicken is finger-lickin’ good! How can it be bad when it tastes so good?

The researchers explain: “The food could lose water and absorb fats during frying, which would increase the energy density of food. Frying could also lead to excess energy intake by making food more aromatic and appealing in texture, thus improving food palatability. Additionally, frying deteriorates oils through the process of oxidation and hydrogenation, leading to a loss of unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic acid and an increase in the corresponding trans fatty acids such as trans linoleic acid.”

Trans fat is the worst fat—it raises LDL cholesterol levels and lowers HDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats are also tied to increased risks of developing heart disease and stroke.


OK, strike the hamburgers and fried chicken. How about a nice, wholesome submarine sandwich?

Call it a sub, a hero, or a hoagie, but don’t call it for lunch. Why not? Because subs are packed full of fatty deli meats, not to mention salt, oil, or mayo—all shoved into a carb-heavy roll.

Deli meats (or cold cuts, if you prefer) are processed meats, as are pepperoni and hot dogs. Like eating red meat, eating processed meats is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

Processed meats are also loaded with sodium. Among all the dietary factors that lead to cardiometabolic deaths, sodium is responsible for the highest proportion, accounting for 9.5% of all cardiometabolic deaths.

The sandwich roll isn’t doing you any favors either. The typical hoagie roll is made of refined white flour that lacks the natural fiber and nutrients that whole-grain foods have. Eating a lot of refined grains can result in visceral fat (“belly fat”), which researchers have linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.


Like cold cuts, bacon is categorized as processed meat. Eating just four slices of bacon per week is linked with increased risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, according to the same JAMA Internal Medicine study noted above. The more bacon you eat, the greater the risks.

This comes as no surprise, of course. Bacon may be super-delicious, but it just looks like it’s bad for your heart. One average 10-g slice of cooked bacon contains 4.5 g of fat and 205 mg of sodium. More than two-thirds—68%—of the calories in bacon come from fat, almost half of which is artery-clogging saturated fat.

But bacon isn’t bad only for your heart. Bacon is also chock-full of nitrates and nitrites, which are linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. (Deli meats have a lot of these preservatives, too.)


Soup tastes mmm-mmm good, but it can be uh-uh bad for your heart, especially if it’s canned soup or soup from a restaurant—both of which can be loaded with sodium.

Consider classic Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. One serving (not even a whole can) contains 890 mg of sodium, which is 39% of the recommended daily value. A crock of French onion soup at The Capital Grille has a heart-pounding 3,080 mg of sodium—134% of the daily amount—not to mention 25 g of saturated fat.

So, when you buy soup, choose the low-sodium variety. Or make your own soup at home with a heart-healthy recipe.


We all know that sugary soda is full of empty calories that will give you cavities and pack on the pounds, but how does drinking soda affect your heart?

Sugary drinks are highly refined and processed carbohydrates—similar to white bread and white rice—with the same adverse effects on the heart. Until a few years ago, experts considered sugar to be only a promoter of heart disease because it can cause increased weight gain, which raises risk of cardiovascular disease. But that view has expanded.

“The new paradigm views sugar overconsumption as an independent risk factor in CVD as well as many other chronic diseases, including diabetes mellitus, liver cirrhosis, and dementia—all linked to metabolic perturbations involving dyslipidemia, hypertension, and insulin resistance,” wrote Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH, professor of health policy, University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, in an article in JAMA Internal Medicine. “The new paradigm hypothesizes that sugar has adverse health effects above any purported role as ‘empty calories’ promoting obesity. Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick.”

Dr. Schmidt’s article was an invited commentary on a related study in JAMA Internal Medicine that showed that drinking one 12-oz soda a day increases the risk of CVD mortality by nearly one-third, regardless of total daily calories consumed.

“[T]he risk of CVD mortality becomes elevated once added sugar intake surpasses 15% of daily calories—equivalent to drinking one 20-ounce Mountain Dew soda in a 2000-calorie daily diet,” Dr. Schmidt wrote. “From there, the risk rises exponentially as a function of increased sugar intake, peaking with a four-fold increased risk of CVD death for individuals who consume one-third or more of daily calories in added sugar.”

That’s worrisome, because nearly two-thirds of American kids (60%) reported drinking at least one soda or other sugary drink every day, according to CDC statistics from 2011-2014. American adults aren’t doing much better, with 54% of men and 45% of women drinking at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day.

It’s not just the soda we drink that’s full of added sugar. Sugar-sweetened beverages also include fruit drinks (such as sweetened bottled waters and fruit juices with added sugars), sports and energy drinks, pre-sweetened coffee and tea, and other drinks.

Take a look at the amount of sugar in that Matcha Green Tea Crème Frappuccino you ordered from Starbucks—62 g of sugar! The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 36 g of added sugar and women no more than 25 g of added sugar per day.

(By the way, that Frappuccino also has 9 g of saturated fat—45% of your daily value.)


Sure, you know that doughnuts are bad for your heart, but there’s nothing wrong with indulging in this sweet treat once in a while, right? But just make sure you know what you’re biting into.

Heart-wise, doughnuts are a triple threat, particularly in the empty calorie department. Not only are they made of refined white flour, but they also have lots of extra sugar from the frosting or powdered sugar on top to the jelly or cream inside. Added to that: they’re deep fried.

Just one chocolate-frosted cake doughnut from Dunkin’ has 20 g of sugar and 20 g of fat, of which 9 g is saturated fat (45% of your daily value). It also has a surprising 340 mg of sodium (15% of your daily value).


Speaking of triple threats, pizza just might be a quadruple threat. It’s got the heart-busting combination of refined flour in the dough, fat in the cheese, sugar in the sauce, and—if you add pepperoni or sausage—it’s got saturated fat, sodium, and nitrates in the processed meat toppings.

Consider: two slices of pepperoni pizza from a large “hand-tossed” pie from Pizza Hut has 28 g of fat—of which 12 g is saturated fat—as well as 1,820 mg of sodium and 10 g of sugar. (Don’t even ask about the Meat Lover’s pizza—you don’t want to know.)

Chinese food

Chinese food from a traditional take-out restaurant is often loaded with sodium (in sauces), refined carbs (in white rice and noodles), and fat (from deep frying).

Instead, try to pick dishes with more vegetables and no fried ingredients. Beef with broccoli sounds like it might fit the bill, right? Sorry, that’s a trick question: An order of beef with broccoli at P.F. Chang’s (just to use a standardized example) has 2,110 mg of sodium, 33 g of fat—including 7 g of saturated fat—not to mention 33 g of sugar.

That’s not to say that all food at a Chinese restaurant is dangerous. Look for dishes with steamed vegetables, ask for sauces on the side, and cut back on the noodles and rice.

Ice cream

I have a good friend who considers a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to be a single serving. He eats it right out of the container and finishes it in one sitting. Fortunately for him, he’s a competitive cyclist and burns up a lot of calories, because otherwise he’d be the size of a house. But even though he can stomach the calories, the other ingredients might be challenging his heart.

Ice cream, of course, is full of fat and sugar. Even a normal serving (not a whole pint) pushes the limits of your daily intake of these ingredients. For example, one serving of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (their flagship flavor) has 20 g of fat, including 12 g of saturated fat (60% of the daily value). It also has 33 g of sugar, which includes 28 g of added sugar (56% of the daily value).

Have you ever eaten a whole pint? Oh, of course not. But if you did, you’d be getting 180% of your saturated fat for the day and 170% of added sugars. (Just don’t go making a habit of it.)

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