Your heart is an amazing muscle that beats about 100,000 times each day, keeping you alive. Eating certain items can help your heart stay healthy while other foods can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke

Cardiologists agree that the following foods should be avoided for the health of your heart. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy these items occasionally as a treat, but they should not be a part of your regular diet. 

Red meat (including “the other white meat”) 

Red meats such as beef, veal, and lamb are high in cholesterol and saturated fat. So, before you dig into a juicy T-bone steak, keep in mind that animal fat found in red meat is especially bad for your heart and arteries, and should be limited to a small percentage of your overall diet.

When we say red meat, you may be surprised to learn that pork is included in the red meat category. Although it may be marketed as a healthy alternative to poultry, it is not.

While your body needs protein, it’s best to choose more heart-healthy protein sources including chicken, turkey, fish, and seafood. Better yet, try plant-based proteins such as tofu, lentils, chickpeas, or black beans instead of animal protein! If the carnivore in you is still craving red meat, go ahead and enjoy an occasional steak or chop as a special indulgence.

Bacon, hot dogs, and other processed meats 

Bacon. It seems to be everywhere these days – a side order on a breakfast plate, an addition to a cheeseburger, or even crumbled atop a craft cocktail. It’s so common in dishes that you might think it’s okay to enjoy that sizzling, greasy strip.

The fact is that bacon is not only loaded with saturated fat, but also contains high amounts of sodium, both of which are linked to increased risk for heart disease. The same is true for frankfurters and deli meats such as salami, ham, and pastrami. So, keep that bacon and eggs breakfast to a minimum and enjoy that hot dog at your next baseball game. But stick to healthier options when it comes to the meats you might enjoy regularly. 

French fries and other fried foods 

What’s not to love about those delicious, deep-fried sticks of potato, covered in salt and dipped in ketchup? Cardiologists would say everything!

French fries, along with all fried foods, contain high levels of saturated fat and trans fats, two types of fat that are particularly bad for your heart health. But those fries also contain salt, another threat to your cardiovascular health.

Next time you have a craving, opt for making some “oven-baked fries” by slicing potatoes and baking on high heat with olive oil rather than their deep-fried alternative. Likewise, skip that fried chicken sandwich and try the wonderful flavors of grilled chicken instead.

Sugary drinks and cereals

A bowl of cereal and juice for breakfast. A soda with lunch. An energy drink before the gym. You’d be surprised how much added sugar is in many of the foods and drinks we often enjoy regularly! Sugar is a cause of weight gain, which can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, all of which are bad for your heart.

In addition, it can also affect your arteries with increased levels of triglycerides and a type of cholesterol known as LDL (read more about that here). Finally, excess sugar is also linked to inflammation in the body. Instead of soda, switch to seltzer or water, and be sure to read the labels so you can select foods that have less added sugar. 

Potato chips and snack foods

They don’t call it junk food for nothing! Those bags of potato chips and their counterparts like nacho chips and cheese curls are highly processed foods that are fried and filled with additives along with high amounts of sodium. There’s really nothing healthy about them. They can contribute to weight gain, heart disease, and increased risk of stroke. If you’re having a snack attack, skip the chips and instead go for a handful of nuts, seeds, or dried fruit chips. 

Full-fat dairy products 

Dairy is an important part of a balanced diet. But for your heart’s sake, it’s best to skip the “whole” versions. Instead, choose low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese to reduce your overall fat intake while still gaining the benefits these dairy products provide. When it comes to milk, you might even want to try non-dairy milk alternatives such as almond or oat milk. These products offer the creamy texture of milk with delicious flavor but none of the animal fat that can increase your risk for heart disease. 

Baked goods, cookies, and pastries

While they may taste delicious, breads, cookies and baked treats all contain high amounts of sugar and fat. Though they can be enjoyed on occasion, it’s best to not make these a regular staple in your diet. Instead, opt for healthier treats such as fruit and nuts when you’re craving something sweet, and enjoy those fancy pastries or bakery cookies as a special treat only.

When it comes to food choices, focus on nutritional foods that help your heart keep beating and avoid those that can prevent it from doing its job. 

You can find more heart health, nutrition and wellness tips on our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog. For more information on heart conditions, treatment and our cardiologists, visit the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute website. 

Wen-Chih "Hank" Wu, MD

Dr. Wen-Chih Wu, MPH, is director of the Lifespan Cardiovascular Wellness and Prevention Center at the Lifespan Cardiovascular institute and specializes in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.