As a cardiologist who has treated thousands of patients, I am often asked what foods to eat for a healthy heart.
Of course, you don’t need to be a nutritionist to know that you won’t benefit from a consistent diet of cheeseburgers, donuts and fries. But there are a number of popular choices that aren’t actually that good for your heart.
Here are five foods I always try to avoid overeating—and what I choose instead:
Many people are surprised to learn that bread and pasta are some of the biggest contributors of sodium to our diet. High sodium consumption can raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
A simple bagel, for example, can contain 500 milligrams of sodium, which is about a third of what the American Heart Association recommends per day for most adults.
Refined flours in bread can also raise our blood sugar. And remember, just because it’s brown doesn’t make it better.
For fiber content, I try to look for visible grains and seeds throughout each slice and aim for at least three grams of fiber per 100 calories.
Too much butter isn’t healthy for your heart, but alternatives like margarine aren’t always better.
There used to be more trans fat—which raises “bad” cholesterol and lowers “good” cholesterol—in margarine before the FDA banned partially hydrogenated oils in 2015. But just because the trans fats are gone doesn’t automatically make margarine good for you. us.
Many on the market are made with palm oil, which contains high amounts of saturated fat, which can raise your cholesterol.
Margarine made from olive oil or linseed oil is a better choice. Olive oil contains only negligible levels of saturated fat and no trans fat. Another great butter substitute I love is mashed avocado.
3. Skimmed milk
Milk and milk products containing milk fat are the main sources of saturated fatty acids. And while skim milk may be the better option, I still encourage people to switch it up and try alternatives.
Almond, cashew, and macadamia nut milks are higher in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, as are soy, hemp, and flax milks.
If you drink milk because it is a good source of calcium, know that calcium can be found in many different foods. Almonds, broccoli, kale, oranges, beans, edamame, figs, and canned salmon are heart-healthy options that can add more calcium to your diet.
4. Diet soda
It may not contain any sugar, but diet soda can still mess with your biochemistry. Recent studies have revealed that the artificial sweeteners found in diet soda can affect the production of important proteins in our gut that protect against obesity and diabetes.
For refreshing beverage options, I like to drink tea, which is full of heart-healthy compounds that help fight inflammation and cell damage. Black and green tea are associated with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke.
Another great option is a glass of sparkling water with fresh fruit and mint leaves added.
5. Granola bars
Although they may sound healthy, most granola bars contain much more than the oats, nuts, and fruit that are usually highlighted on the front of the package.
Many are also full of added sugars, artificial sweeteners and other counterproductive ingredients, such as palm oil.
I much prefer raw nuts as a filling snack on their own. When I eat oats, I usually have oatmeal for breakfast, using dried or fresh fruit as sweeteners.
Dr. Elizabeth Claude is a cardiologist and founder of First step foods. Trained at the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, Dr. Clodas has published dozens of scientific articles throughout her career, authored a patient book, “Kill the Giant: The Power of Prevention in Beating Heart Disease,″ and served as founding editor-in-chief of Cardiosmart.org.
Do not miss: